Welcome the United Arab Emirates National Symphony Orchestra

We meet the conductor of the soon-to-be UAE National Symphony Orchestra, as he prepares for its inaugural concert in March.

Andy Berryman, the conductor of the United Arab Emirates National Symphony Orchestra, which will hold its inaugural concert on March 16 at Abu Dhabi’s National Theatre. Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd

The conductor Andy Berryman dives into a cool Manchester cafe, wiping the sleet from his winter coat. The Emirates, clearly, feel a long, long way away. But the former director of the Abu Dhabi Police Band has a glint in his eye and a spring in his step. Finally, after years of planning and more than a few false starts, the dream of a symphony orchestra for the UAE is coming to fruition. In March, Berryman will walk on stage at the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi, take a deep breath and launch his charges into their first ever concert.

"It's been a great journey," smiles the 49-year-old, who also spent 20 years playing trombone for Manchester's world-famous Halle Orchestra and is currently back in the UK to prepare one of the best-known brass bands in Britain, Wingates, for competition. And yet it was a journey that was remarkably close to never happening at all.

"I was actually about to leave Abu Dhabi for good," he admits. "One day, I took a group of Police Band members to whom I'd been teaching bagpipes to Brighton College, near Sheikh Khalifa park. I wanted to broaden their horizons a little further. We happened across the singing teacher there ... and then, when I played soon afterwards at the college with another group I was involved in, the Abu Dhabi Big Band, there she was, in the front row."

The teacher was Janet Hassouneh, who told Berryman in no uncertain terms that he couldn't leave Abu Dhabi because she wanted him to be musical director of a new orchestra she had been planning. "I've lived in the Emirates for 26 years and there's a gap, if you like, between the grassroots performing arts scene and something like the former Abu Dhabi Classics series of international orchestras," she says. "So I envisaged an orchestra of excellence that could promote music within the UAE for current and future generations of Emirati nationals and expatriates."

That orchestra was the UAE National Symphony Orchestra. Berryman was immediately enthused, not least because intuition told him there were plenty of professional musicians in the Emirates who, just like him, were desperate to use their skills in a meaningful way. Including his wife, Emma, tactical adviser for the Abu Dhabi Police and trombone player. Of course, there is already the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra, run by Philipp Maier, but many cities across the world can and do support both.

"Abu Dhabi has genuinely been an exciting adventure for us," says Berryman. "You buy into wanting to achieve something there, and when I spoke to the cellist - who has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra - or the trumpet player [Andy Cuff, who has his own show on Abu Dhabi Classic FM], they felt the same way. So, initially, it was an excuse to put something together for the musicians with professional experience already in the Emirates. But we really hope it can be more than that. Of course, the really important aim is to get Emirati musicians involved."

Berryman says that Oman should be the template. There, children are earmarked for excellence in music at an early age and incentivised to succeed - the result being that the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, full of talented Omani musicians, is now at a good level. Long term, this is the intention for UAENSO - that it becomes a full-time concern that allows Emirati musicians to express themselves.

For now, though, Berryman is merely concentrating on making the first concert as good as it can be. He's yet to fill completely all the positions in the orchestra and auditions are slated for early March - "we still need a tuba," he laughs - but he's keen not just to headhunt the most obvious people.

"We're hoping to foster the sense that the orchestra belongs to the UAE and its people, so it's absolutely fine for unknowns to get in touch. You know, I hear so often that there isn't a huge tradition of classical music in the Emirates, and I just refuse to believe it," he says. "I do know from my time with the police band that some members didn't tell their parents or their family that they were involved. But look at the Al Ayala. It's a traditional dance but essentially it's music. It's got a pulse, a vibrancy. And people go to the movies, don't they? When they see, say, Amadeus, they're listening to the first movement from Mozart's 25th symphony. It makes sense for a symphony orchestra in the Emirates to reflect that."

To that end, it's telling that the inaugural concert on March 16 will feature music from films such as Star Wars - although Berryman is keen to underline that it's not just a catch-all "night at the movies" programme. More meditative work from Michael Nyman and Yann Tiersen (from the Amélie soundtrack) will also make an appearance. Plans for three further concerts this year are in the offing, too - Berryman's particularly excited by the possibility of an Emirati singer taught by Hassouneh being involved in one of them - and they're hoping to tie in work from young Emirati artists with a performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

"That one could be great - particularly if we could get them to create pieces based on their responses to the music. But we really are at the beginning of the road. We need more sponsorship to make all this happen, of course, but we're hopeful that by doing this first concert, people will see how valuable UAENSO could be."

And, though everything about the nascent UAENSO so far has, happily, been based around a creative imperative, there is a compelling financial argument, too. "Think about it: the financial commitment to get major symphony orchestras to come and play in Abu Dhabi is colossal. So our argument is obvious. We have the people here already. We can do this."

And as Berryman zips his coat up to prepare for another adventure - battling the biting Manchester wind - he's certainly the right person to be holding the baton.

  • The inaugural UAENSO concert is on March 16 at The National Theatre, Abu Dhabi. www.uaenso.ae

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