After a series of changed plans and cancellations, the World Economic Form (famous for meetings in Davos, Switzerland) issued a last minute invitation to our UAE Philharmonic Orchestra. We were to play at the opening banquet of the third annual Summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai, where 600 economist-types from around the world discuss what’s going wrong, why, and what we’re all going to do about it.
We parked in the first level of the Dubai Mall parking, looking for the world’s only Armani Hotel in the world’s tallest building. But somehow, as easy as the Burj Khalifa is to find, the entrances remain hidden — and we walked for half an hour through the mall, past ice skating and thousand-dollar handbags, and around the massive foundation for half an hour trying to find the right way in. Like anywhere else in the Emirates, employees and passersby are often only experts in their immediate neighborhood: looking for Gatehouse 6, we were met with blank stares by the guards at Gatehouse 3.
Finally, we snaked through the back entrance and onto the massive “patio” of the Burj Khalifa, where the tower looms more incredibly than from any other perspective. This is not the kind of “hey, wow, that’s incredible” you feel when you look at the world’s biggest ball of yarn, or Italy’s biggest pizza — this is a kind of un-credibleness that makes your brain do a triple Salkow and faceplant into the ice cold reality of physics, still struggling to make sense of it all. For some reason, from some angles in bright daylight, the brain is sometimes able to shrink down the Burj — to convince itself that it’s just a shorter building that’s really, really skinny. But at night against the sky’s black backdrop, there’s no escape, and the mind capitulates to accept the new biggest thing it’s ever seen.
During the soundcheck, we played Strauss’ Die Fledermaus operetta to the sound of our own echo — and the explosive interruption of Pavarotti singing accompaniment to the majestic, bihourly fountain show in the giant pool around which the Burj and the mall grounds are built. It was opera vs. operetta, recorded vs. live, in a classic face-off indicative of the Dubai lifestyle that falters without a distraction every thirty minutes. Hey, even in French, distraction means “entertainment.” With a giggling trumpet section (might have just been me), and all the strings severed from their conductor, Recorded Mr. Pavarotti may have won the battle.
Guests entered, preparing to solve the world’s financial problems, as we played excellently the role of the starving artist — asking when we’d be given food, waiting far too long (complaining all the while), and finally sneaking past the velvet rope and over the red carpet mumbling “equity,” “stakeholders!”, and “APR” to fit in.
“What kind of a project is that with these interest rates?” I said to my friend the violinist, scooping smoked salmon onto my plate. “It’s utterly preclusive.”
“Yes,” he said. Caprese salad. Artful sushi. “Right.”
“Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen…” the MC greeted the tables whose reserved places sat filled with high-ranking officials in immaculate white robes (a car was spotted with the license plate: 3), and as rumor buzzed, might later include Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE.
Budding Emirati artists addressed the crowd as well, honored for their achievements in various fields. “I love working in the arts,” said one, “because it is one of the few fields where you can actually have a voice.”
Bad move, I thought. You’re talking to six-hundred economists.
Luckily for him, and for us as we played the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean as if it were dinner music, no one seemed to pay much attention. Still, though I knew we’d thrown together a partially sight-read, at times sloppy program, we were all validated by a security guard who thanked us on the way out: “you guys made a wonderful sound”.
That has always seemed like the point — to bring a new kind of distraction, perhaps a window into another culture, to a place where only Pavarotti and Enya held dominion. In this bizarre outdoor venue, spotlights darted across surrounding buildings, likely blinding or terrifying occupants, fountains roared, and the world’s tallest building thrusted up into space. Everyone must deal with this massive stimulation in their own way. Some listened, some took pictures, and we all just Waited for Sheikh Mo.