What will the new multinational orchestra bring to the UAE?

London Philharmonic's Stewart McIlwham says touring orchestras can be cultural institutions and important tools of diplomacy

Violinist Carmine Laurie, the Orchestra's leader of the London Symphony Orchestra performs during an outdoor classic concert in Hanoi, Vietnam October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kham

News that the UAE will have a new national orchestra has caused a buzz in the performing arts community.

But what will the founding of such an institution do for the nation and its ever-expanding cultural scene?

One of the most famous orchestral ensembles is the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO).

While the UK does not have one national orchestra per se, the LPO is internationally recognised as one of Britain’s biggest cultural assets.

Founded in 1932, the LPO has toured extensively across the world in its 80-year history and holds prestigious residencies at the iconic national venues Royal Festival Hall and Glyndebourne.

Stewart McIlwham is the Principal Piccolo of the LPO as well as the orchestra’s elected president.

Having played with the ensemble for over two decades, he believes such an institution has the power to infiltrate a love of classical music into a nation.

"Like anything it takes time to establish in these things but if there is suddenly a reorganisation that is coming from within the country that's going to stir up a lot of interest," Mr McIlwham told The National in London.

Mr McIIwham has travelled extensively with the LPO across the world including to Abu Dhabi in 2008 where the ensemble gave a performance to an Emirati girls’ school.

“When you do education work one of the most rewarding things is when you get a real response from the audience. You got the sense that it had made their day to hear it, there’s a potential for an appetite for orchestral music in the region.

“Hopefully the new orchestra will lead to outreach initiatives where more young people would be able to learn musical instruments.”

Touring internationally can also bring prestige to a country and is a way of benchmarking the quality of the orchestra with others, according to Timothy Walker the LPO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director.

“Touring is good for the morale of the players because of the esprit de corps you have as opposed to the standard working life of the musician in London,” said Mr Walker, who brokers all of the LPO’s international expeditions.

“For touring instrumentalists, you are an ambassador for the country and you are showcasing your country’s culture abroad.”


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Touring national orchestras have been often been at the forefront of diplomatic fence mending in countries where relations have soured.

“Orchestral tours can be used for soft diplomacy reasons. The LPO was the first orchestra from the West to travel to the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1956. We were also the first orchestra from the West to go to China after the cultural revolution in 1973.

“Both of those were quite strong statements of welcoming those two countries back into the international community,” Mr Walker added.

For Mr McIIwham, the decision that the orchestra will be made up of a combination of Emirati and international players is an important one.

“Every successful orchestra I’ve worked with is multinational,” he said. “Music is a great thing for breaking down barriers and borders. It’s a universal language that has the power to heal all sorts of divides.”