This week I practiced for the first time with the Abu Dhabi Philharmonic Orchestra, a volunteer group of all expats ranging from 14 years-old (I asked) to about 70 (didn’t go there). Rehearsals take place in the Armed Forces Officers’ Club — a multipurpose army hang out, hotel, gym, theater space, concert hall, and gun museum — in a venue clearly not designed with music in mind.
For the first ten minutes (of a Howard Shore Lord of the Rings medley), the stage lights wouldn’t come on, and we played through squinted eyes and predictable melodies. Finally bright lights shone from somewhere sort of over us, illuminating the ancient music stands only a military establishment could have owned — the tripod base tightened with a screw and looked more like it was made to hold a 500-pound bazooka than 10 grams of sheet music, and the matching stand head had to be fitted from a crate of mismatched parts like the barrel of a rifle to its companion grip.
As some sort of event had just finished in the hall, cleaning men scurried to remove all evidence of celebration — a thick coating of confetti, boxes of cake, dozens of balloons forty feet up on the ceiling. The fact that the music that was being played involved real people that were really there had no bearing on the chatty vacuumers and shouting managers. I tried to think of it all as part of a new surreal musical culture — one that defied the challenges of an uncooperative environment and persevered. Like, say, the English in the subcontinent.
But then, in the middle of “Pomp and Circumstances” (our German director’s mistakenly titled arrangement of Sir Edward Elgar’s graduation-ruiner), the cleaners got serious.
Armed with a 30 foot long pole tipped with a spike, men jabbed at the ceiling to do their job and pop balloons. At uneven intervals loud pops would punctuate our phrases, annoying some, entertaining the rest, and giving Sir Eddie his long-overdue comeuppance.
The mostly pops and band standards (bandards?) repertoire caters to the only corporate clientele willing to pay for the orchestra. Somewhere else it might not seem as musically worthwhile, but here in the desert of pomp, it all depends on the circumstances.