Dubai Chamber Orchestra celebrates 10 years with a free concert

We talk to the Emirati cellist Elham Al Marzouqi and Barnaby Priest, the musical director of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra, which celebrates its 10th anniversary tomorrow with a free concert in Dubai.

'I'm always looking for more people. We don't discriminate,' says Barnaby Priest from the Dubai Chamber Orchestra. Duncan Chard for the National
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Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane talks to the Emirati cellist Elham Al Marzouqi and Barnaby Priest, the musical director of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra, which celebrates its 10th anniversary tomorrow with a free concert in Dubai.

Elham Al Marzouqi is the UAE’s only Emirati orchestral cellist.

A lawyer by day and a talented musician by night, she’s a member of the Dubai Chamber Orchestra, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Thursday.

“It would be great to get more Emirati musicians to join and not feel so intimidated,” she says. “We’re a lovely bunch.”

Founded in 2003, the classical ensemble comprises more than 30 members of 18 different nationalities. To mark its decade-long existence, a free concert will be held at the Saudi German Hospital Conference Centre in Dubai at 8pm tomorrow.

“We’ll be playing pieces by Shostakovich, Rossini, Weber, Grainger and also a composition by our director,” says Al Marzouqi.

Barnaby Priest, the orchestra’s musical director, composer and conductor, has been at the helm of the group for four years. A teacher at Zayed University, Priest’s commitment to the community-run collective is evident from the extra hours he spends reviving ancient pieces to be performed.

“Because a lot of the music we play was composed a couple of centuries ago, there aren’t databases with readily available scores,” he says.

“There was a 1700s piece by Jan Dismas Zelenka, for example, but only the ‘parts’. He also had the most dreadful handwriting, which is hard for modern players to read. So, what I did was copy out the parts and create a new edition of the music.”

The challenging score by the Czech baroque composer took Priest months to prepare. “It’s unusual to find a piece that has multiple solo parts for the bassoon, violin and cello and I wanted to give those musicians in the orchestra an opportunity to shine. At the end of the day, we had a super piece and a lovely performance, so it was well worth the effort.”

Priest, like Al Marzouqi, has a strong musical background and years of training behind him. He’s keen to encourage new players to join the orchestra and insists it is for amateurs and professionals alike.

“I’m always looking for more people. We don’t discriminate,” he says. “If you can play an instrument, especially a string instrument, we would love to hear from you. You don’t need to be a virtuoso, just enthusiastic and happy to practise.

“There’s no audition policy – if people feel they are up to it, they are welcome to come along and give it a try. If it’s too challenging, they tend to realise pretty quickly; people generally self-select.”

Practice makes perfect, says Priest, who recommends musical ability to Grade 7 standard or higher will help new players tackle the technical pieces.

Al Marzouqi knows only too well how hard work can lead to great results. She grew up in a musical household and her mother was the first to establish the Abu Dhabi Music Institute back in the 1980s. Having mastered the piano at a young age, she took up the cello only three years ago.

“I’m doing my exams and my husband is encouraging me to study music at a conservatoire in Europe,” she says.

“Getting into the Dubai Chamber Orchestra wasn’t the difficult part; sight-reading music for the cello was the steep learning curve. But you just persevere and it does become easier.”

Priest applauds Al Marzouqi’s commitment to the group as she, like many other members, makes the weekly commute from Abu Dhabi for rehearsals. “All the players give their time for free and play for the love of performing,” he says. “We love to share music and serve the community this way. However, we really would like more people to come to our concerts.”

Without funding, promotion or basic administrative support, the orchestra’s four annual events have, at times, flown under the UAE’s cultural radar.

“A couple of months ago, we had a concert at Safa School in Dubai and not many people came, probably because we’re not well advertised,” muses Al Marzouqi. “It was such a good concert that it was a shame more people didn’t turn up. We rely mostly on word of mouth.”

Proving that there is appetite, however, from music-loving residents, was a full house at a concert the orchestra staged in February at Dubai’s Fridge venue.

If RSVPs on the group’s Facebook page are anything to go by, the anniversary concert seems destined for similar success, with more than 100 people having already confirmed their attendance.

Support the Dubai Chamber Orchestra on Thursday at the Saudi German Hospital in Al Barsha, Dubai. The concert starts at 8pm and entrance is free. Find them on Facebook or Twitter (@DXBChamberOrch)

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