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Capital of culture

The Abu Dhabi Festival draws artists from across the world to the UAE in a cultural extravaganza that celebrates tolerance and promotes unity. Words by Olivia Cuthbert 

Twenty minutes before each performance, American singer Joyce DiDonato is already on set. Around her, the aftermath of war is strewn across the stage, setting the scene for her search to find tranquillity in a world mired by destruction. “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” asks DiDonato, who made her Arab world debut in Abu Dhabi with a performance of In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music on January 24. “Each concert is a gruelling journey,” DiDonato told Concierge ahead of the event, but it’s one the multi-Grammy Award-winner feels privileged to undertake. “My hope is that our message will resonate deeply here and amplify the mission of this ambitious festival,” added DiDonato, who uses her art to search for serenity. Speaking about the Abu Dhabi Festival, which got underway last month, DiDonato said: “I have been following with great interest as this young, but potent festival has taken shape. It is clear, through its mission of cultural inclusion and influence, that it is now one of the major players on the international scene.” 

The event brings more than 500 international artists from 17 countries together for the region’s largest cultural extravaganza. “This enthralling performance of In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music could not have been more perfectly timed as the UAE enters 2019, the Year of Tolerance,” said Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, Founder of Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation and Artistic Director of Abu Dhabi Festival. “Tolerance is something each of us would do well to increase in our lives, no matter our cultural background, for it helps us to understand and appreciate one another, and opens the doors for dialogue and diplomacy.” As always with this event, which has been running annually since 2004, the programme features a diverse mix of genres and styles to encompass the varied interests of audiences in the cosmopolitan emirate. High-profile performances by world-renowned artists run alongside a rich programme of events showcasing young stars from the region and further afield. “From its very beginning, the Abu Dhabi Festival has always sought to make the arts accessible and relevant to people of all backgrounds and ages,” Alkhamis-Kanoo said, emphasising the festival’s commitment to bringing “the very finest world-class artists to these shores, inspiring our youth to explore their own talents and abilities.” 

The 2019 line-up has been chosen to reflect the festival’s central theme Culture of Determination, as it partners with the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi to celebrate those who overcome the odds to make a positive impact on society. “Music and arts transcend all boundaries, and provide fantastic opportunities for people of determination to express themselves, experience joy and increase their self-esteem,” said Peter Wheeler, CEO of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. This year, the creativity of Korea is foregrounded in a series of performances celebrating the art and culture of the country. A different nation is chosen as the ‘country of honour’ for each festival, highlighting close diplomatic ties between Abu Dhabi and its friends worldwide, including India (2018), Saudi Arabia (2017), France (2009, 2016), Italy (2015), USA (2014), Spain (2013), UK (2012), Belgium (2011), Poland (2010), Lebanon (2008, 2006), and Egypt (2007). 

An exploration of the rich cultural history of Korea will begin on March 7 with the Korean National Ballet’s highly acclaimed adaptation of Giselle. When the troupe first formed in 1962, few people had heard of Korean ballet. Known at the time as the National Dance Company of Korea, they saw the opportunity to build a name for ballet at home and showcase Korean talent. By 1973, they had renamed themselves the Korean National Ballet, going on to become a foundation in 2000 with a plan to make an impression on the world. Today, the company has toured the globe, establishing the prestige of Korean ballet in the US, Italy, Russia, China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Laos, Colombia, Canada and elsewhere. 

The Korean journey continues with a performance by the Korean Symphony Orchestra on March 8 conducted by the acclaimed Chi-Yong Chung with a solo by the celebrated pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho, whose skill has been described as “nearing perfection with extraordinary breadth of expression, flawless technique and composition, sensitivity and intelligence, insightful and detailed playing without exaggeration”. Elsewhere in the programme, Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel, flamenco star Sara Baras, artist Justin Kauflin and jazz pianist, composer and producer Quincy Jones will be entertaining audiences throughout the month. Towards the end of the festival, the Paris Opera Ballet will perform Jewels, a three-act ballet by George Balanchine inspired by the artistry of jewellery designer Claude Arpels. Several special commissions add to the unique flavour and global reach of the festival. Following DiDonato’s performance in January, audiences in Berlin gathered to watch Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece La Bohème in a co-production between Komische Oper and the Abu Dhabi Festival 2019.

Throughout the year, the festival supports the celebration of regional talent through its Arab Artists Abroad programme, which included Palestinian-Jordanian pianist, Karim Said, who made his solo debut in October 2018, and Syrian clarinettist and composer, Kinan Azmeh, who will perform in Berlin in May. This year, audiences in Abu Dhabi can attend the launch of Omar Kamal’s latest album before the Palestinian singer embarks on a world tour supported by the Abu Dhabi Festival with performances in the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany and Oman. Speaking at the press launch at Emirates Palace, where many of the events will be staged this month, Alkhamis-Kanoo remarked on the first 15 years of the festival and the role it has played in establishing Abu Dhabi as the capital for arts and culture in a rapidly evolving region. “Today, the festival enters its 16th year and we are all proud of its status as one of the leading, most prominent culture and arts festivals in the region and the world beyond.” 


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