Is this the year when the Abu Dhabi Classics season comes of age? In its first two years, the concert strand staked out a position for itself as one of the best places in the Middle East to hear classical music. But with regular live orchestral music still a relatively new business in the Emirates, it was as though the season was still finding its feet, creating a regional centre for musical excellence in the hope of luring an audience that was not yet fully formed.
With the new programme for 2010-11 just released, this sense of a new festival tentatively feeling its way has gone, with an incredible line-up of musicians and an intensified emphasis on education creating a healthy balance between glamour and outreach. With two of the world's top three orchestras, some of its best soloists and a selection of music that is starting to stray beyond the core repertoire, this year's programme is on a level that any concert hall in New York or Vienna would be proud of.
First, it's worth casting an eye over this year's guests. While previous years have been impressive - programming the Vienna Philharmonic last year was a particular coup - this year the artistic director Till Janczukowicz is particularly proud of the schedule. "This year's programme shows what you can do if you spend a long time planning. We have been making plans with some of this year's orchestras since 2007, back when the Abu Dhabi Classics first started."
First to perform on October 6 will be the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, an ensemble who are regularly cited as the best orchestra in the world. Having an orchestra of this quality would be achievement enough, but to go one better, the Emirates Palace will be following it with the Berlin Philharmonic just a month later, another ensemble also regularly described as - you guessed it - the best in the world. It would be undignified to portray the programming of these two orchestras next to each other as a sort of high-cultural arm wrestle, but it does give audiences a rare chance to compare the two ensembles in the same hall within barely a month, an opportunity that is all too rare.
Given that 2010 is the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth, getting the Concertgebouw is a particular coup. The ensemble has always had an especially close relationship with the composer - during his lifetime it invited him to conduct on several occasions, while after his death it was the first in the world to stage a Mahler festival, in 1920. The Concertgebouw's performance of his fifth symphony (along with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll) thus offers what is arguably Mahler's core work played by the musicians who have the right if anybody does to claim the piece as, to an extent, their own.
Visits to the Middle East by the Berlin Philharmonic, meanwhile, are almost as rare as sightings of Halley's Comet. With brief visits to Cairo in the 1950s and Baalbek in the 1960s, the last time they played in the region was in Tehran way back in the 1970s. Always known for almost unbeatable excellence with the Germanic tradition's three "great Bs" (Beethoven, Bach and Bruckner), the orchestra's Abu Dhabi performances will be both playing to their key strengths and showing some of the new direction they have taken under the British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. They will be treating us to Brahms's stately, lush second symphony and Haydn's consistently popular Symphony No. 99, but they will also be staging the UAE's first performance of the work of the fascinating 20th-century composer Alban Berg, marking the Abu Dhabi Classics' first foray into musical modernism.
While the 440-year-old Berlin Staatskapelle, the orchestra at Berlin's leading opera house, does not have quite the towering reputation of the other two, its two concerts in January can still arguably be called the highlight of the festival. In an era where a globalised music scene means that national musical differences are being softened, the orchestra's distinct voice stands out from a trend towards increasing musical homogenisation.
Due to the perversely useful cultural inertia of communist East Germany, the orchestra managed to preserve more or less uniquely the sound of a pre-Second World War German orchestra within the bubble of post-war East Berlin. As other orchestras changed and came to resemble each other more closely, the Berlin Staatskapelle's sedentary isolation proved invaluable in preserving a historic sound intact and vibrant.
Since the reunification of Germany, this sound has been finessed by the groundbreaking conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, an avid and outspoken promoter of classical music in the Middle East, who this January performs the difficult feat of conducting the Staatskapelle from the piano as he performs a Mozart concerto. The juxtaposition of the Staatskapelle with the Berlin Philharmonic also demonstrates effectively the differences of personality that partly shape the classical music world, differences that are evident in the way music is played. Barenboim is a flamboyant figure, well-known since his days as a child prodigy (he first performed publicly at the age of seven), and a darling of the public ever since his marriage to the brilliant British cellist, the late Jacqueline du Pré in the 1960s.
He is almost as famous for his political stances as his music - he is a vocal critic of the Israeli government and is the only Israeli ever to have received honorary Palestinian citizenship. Barenboim is also a well-known critic of the authentic performance movement, the trend towards trying to perform music in a style as close as possible to that of the time when it was written. His performances of Bach as a pianist include dynamic variations not possible in the 17th century.
Rattle, by contrast, is a relatively self-effacing personality, whose main public remarks beyond the sphere of music have been limited to some rather acidic comments about Britain's contemporary art scene when he left the country for Berlin. With a reputation as a moderniser at the Berlin Philharmonic (where he was chosen over Barenboim in 1999), he is also a keen advocate of the authentic performance movement that Barenboim rejects, avidly encouraging Britain's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and occasionally using period instruments in performances he conducts.
While the home institutions of these two figures are less than a mile from each other, they nonetheless represent marked differences of opinion - differences that the performances they lead during the Abu Dhabi Classics may highlight in some interesting ways. While the choice of musicians in this year's season is hard to beat, it's also encouraging to see the repertoire chosen becoming a little broader and more adventurous than in previous years. Alongside such greats as Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner, there's the aforementioned UAE premiere of the German composer Alban Berg's challenging but sensuous music. Italy's Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, meanwhile, is playing a wonderfully wide-ranging programme at Al Ain in April, including Debussy, Dvorák and Richard Strauss, as well as the relatively under-exposed Russian composers Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Is the Abu Dhabi audience ready for this expansion? Janczukowicz is confident that it is: "We are still focusing mainly on the core of the repertoire, but we thought it was time to introduce a bit more. I believe that for people who have almost no experience of classical music, a composer like Alban Berg isn't at all difficult. It's regular concertgoers, people who might have had a 10-year subscription to a concert hall who say 'None of this modern stuff!' while other people are a bit more open-minded."
While the roll call of talent at this year's festival is impressive - even before mentioning the recital by the American cellist YoYo Ma this coming spring - big names alone do not make a concert season great. Without a genuinely appreciative, well-informed audience the Abu Dhabi Classics season might ring a little hollow, which is perhaps why this year's season puts such emphasis on musical education and outreach, in a conscious attempt to broaden that audience.
Grappling with the issue of how to keep the classical music audience renewing itself from younger generations is something concert hall curators the world over have to engage with. That the Abu Dhabi Classics is focusing especially on this is perhaps its clearest sign that it is now asserting itself as a serious international player. To this end, three of the major orchestras will be giving young people's concerts, while the season's organisers are also working with emerging singers at Venice's La Fenice opera house to create a special gala for children.
This relationship with education will be carried on outside the concert hall, with the Abu Dhabi Classics building more links with schools and universities that will continue once the musicians invited have returned home. And it's not just young people who are a focus in these audience-building exercises. As well as his recital, Yo-Yo Ma will be giving a behind-the-scenes masterclass with local musicians, with a possible view to creating something for performance in a future season. According to Janczukowicz, this strand of the programme is central to the Abu Dhabi Classics' mission.
"We want to present excellence, but we also want to help build a strong active audience for decades to come. One night we may be making sure we create a glamorous evening, but the next morning we'll have 1,500 kids in the auditorium, with Daniele Gatti or Daniel Barenboim explaining the music to be played for them in a way they can understand and appreciate. We also want to work with adults on things like community choir projects in order to help build up local participation and musicianship."
Is all this effort going to create a new generation of classical music-obsessed Abu Dhabi youngsters? It's impossible to say at this stage, but it is without question true that no festival, however handsome its setting or excellent its participants, can survive without a real grass-roots network of well-informed, passionate aficionados. With its eye not on the next few years, but on the next few decades, the Abu Dhabi Classics' efforts to build a genuine base for classical music in the Emirates are arguably its most impressive piece of programming yet.
Mahler, October 6 Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 5. The massive and harmonically progressive piece offers a transcendental hour with one of the world's best orchestras.
Berg, November 9 Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Three Orchestra Pieces Op 6 by Alban Berg. The orchestra is loved around the world for its lush sound and rich repertoire, and tackles the exciting, expressionistic work of a composer torn between the dark orchestrations of Mahler and the atonalism of Schoenberg. Barenboim on Tchaikovsky, January 29 Your children couldn't ask for a more charismatic, approachable and authoritative guide to classical music than Barenboim, and this Young People's Concert is a rare opportunity to hear him speak about and conduct Tchaikovsky.
Dvorák, March 3 The great virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most remarkable soloists working today, genuinely engaged with the orchestra, the audience and the instrument. In the thrilling Cello Concerto by Antonin Dvorák, he and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI. will be presenting one of his signature works. You should also catch the cello recitals at Al Jahili Fort from March 5.
Opera for Kids, April 28 Catch them while they're still young enough to be open-minded. The Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, an Abu Dhabi and Al Ain Classics regular, offers a programme designed to introduce children to the fun side of opera. Yes, there really is one.