2019 was an odd year. I spent a good deal of it indoors, reading (*watching Netflix) and the few times I ventured out, it was for these “serious” above-mentioned pursuits. Not ladies’ nights, restaurants or shopping. Had I more invitations to the first two, and not indulged in far too much online shopping to have much left over for the mall, the title of this post would be something much more typical of Dubai.
January: The Emirates LitFest blog
Sometime at the end of 2018, the folks at the Emirates LitFest put out a call on Twitter for bloggers and blog ideas. I dashed off a few proposals and waited. I was pretty disappointed when I didn’t hear from them since I genuinely believed I was “a good fit” as they say in the corporate world. However, in January, they got back to me and asked if I could write about the authors and books to be featured at the LitFest. I was so thrilled, I had mentally composed the insta post announcing the project well before I began to work on the blogs themselves. I dashed off some fresh proposals, and spent the next two months leading up to the LitFest reading as many of the books as I could before I wrote each post. I ended up finally getting the Kindle app on my phone and what a Godsend that has been. It’s a pity I was too lazy to do it earlier.
Here are the posts themselves:
April: London Mozart players at Dubai Opera
This was my second trip ever to Dubai Opera following an afternoon showing of Swan Lake in 2018, where the audience mainly comprised teeny aspiring ballerinas. The concert, however, was staged in a studio, a much more intimate space perfect for chamber music. Seating was first come first serve, so I managed to get myself and my poor eyesight a good spot in the third row.
The London Mozart Players are a large repertoire and several of its members were in town around this time. The performers that night were a first and second violinist, a viola player and a cellist. The event itself was a chatty little affair, rather like being in the drawing room with a bunch of music geeks. Before each piece, one of the performers would introduce the work, and give a little background. The first piece was Schubert’s unfinished 12th quartet, after which the performers were joined by a clarinetist, and they collectively launched into Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, followed by the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. All the pieces were new to me and to my untrained ears, the clarinetist seemed to be struggling a bit. There was also some clapping between movements (something that doesn’t happen as much at the Dubai Concert Committee) but the musicians were good sports and almost seemed to welcome it.
I’ve never quite warmed to Brahms, but there’s something seductive about watching people actually create music with their fingers, faces contorting, heads moving, bodies swaying. Also, the Brahms quintet was inspired by the Mozart one, so brownie points to Johannes there.
May: The Dutch Masters Exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi
While I mostly fangirl over the impressionists, and adore Munch and Turner, in the classics I have always gravitated to the Dutch masters. One morning, my daughter and I took the intercity bus to Abu Dhabi, hastened through the regular exhibits (that I’d seen last year) and found ourselves in a hall dedicated to this special showing.
Other than Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer, there were paintings by Jan Lievens, Isaac De Jouderville and many artists bearing either the first name or second name Cornelius.
Young Painter in his Studio by Barent Fabritius
There was a painting each by Carel Fabritius of The Goldfinch fame, and his brother Barent. I fell instantly in love with a pupil of Rembrandt’s who I had never heard of before, Gerrit/Gerard Dou. Small canvases but infused with such feeling. However, the painting that still speaks to me after all these months is Rembrandt’s Man with a Sword.
Man with a Sword, by Rembrandt Van Rijn
If it looks at all familiar, it is because the glint in the Man’s eye is very reminiscent of some characters I may have seen on the aforementioned ladies’ nights: fuckboys. Seventeenth or twenty-first century, some things never change.
A lot of the art was from the Leiden collection, which can be viewed online.
August: Short + Sweet, The Junction
Short + Sweet is a theatre festival dedicated to original 10-minute plays. Last year, I participated in a 24-hour playwriting contest here in the UAE called Stagewrite; winners would have their plays entered in the local Short + Sweet contest. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to winning, but it left me with renewed respect for people who manage to craft coherent stories with well thought-out plotlines and characters.
A favourite avenue in that ultimate of avenues, Al Serkal
In early August, The Junction at Al Serkal devoted an evening to staging 10 winning plays from the past seven years and while I didn’t stay for the entire evening, I was struck anew by the difficulty of creating something that resonates with the audience, in such a short space of time. Some of the plays did it better than others: my favourite was one that featured a loving matriarch, who is also an ex mafia hitman. I also enjoyed an exchange in a dressing room that was all about body insecurities, and the one that features a sex game that goes horribly wrong. The cast of course was mostly amateur and the acting jarred in places, but the tickets were priced so low, this is really not a legitimate complaint at all.
Also in August: Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
Later in the month, I found myself back at The Junction, filled with anticipation. I had been through a phase in my teens when I read Ibsen’s plays back to back. All I remembered of Ghosts was that it wasn’t one of my favourites and it soon became clear why – unlike my favourite A Doll’s House, Ibsen sacrificed entertainment for drilling home a message. This is something from the 19th century that hasn’t aged well at all. It didn’t help that a major plot point – the male lead dying of syphilis – was dealt with through oblique references and euphemisms. If you didn’t know what the subject of the play was, you’d be mystified and wonder what the histrionics were about. Still for a fairly intense and long play with very little to leaven it, it did manage to hold one more or less engaged from beginning to end.
When you don’t take pictures during the performance and miss the curtain call too.
I am immensely grateful that The Junction takes a stab at things like this. The acting is uneven but mostly good; the varied accents of the amateur cast may sometimes shift focus from the action, but this is ultimately reflective of the polyglot nature of Dubai as well as a testament to a passion that transcends nationality. The sets and costume were adequate and the audience, pretty involved. Having been to The Junction a few times, I know now that both the cast and audience is mostly made up of regulars. Here’s to many more such stagings in the future.
September: Istvan Vardai at Dubai Concert Committee
Of all the things I’ve attended (I’d hesitate to call these events) the concerts held by the Dubai Concert Committee (DCC) top the list. First, there is the beautiful setting at the One and Only Royal Mirage, with its hidden paths and dim, flickering lamps (that manage to be mysterious and not sleazy). Then, there are several luxurious restaurants where you can enjoy an early dinner before the 8 PM start time. Happy and sated, you then make your way to the ballroom, waiting in a luxurious lobby sipping on wine or rosé under vast chandeliers. Everyone around you is dressed for the occasion; once the doors open, a glow has been well and truly cast over what is to follow. And that is usually some sublime music, because the performers the DCC brings in are usually top-notch (a New Yorker-worthy critique, that last sentence). In 2017, I watched the sublime pianist Gergely Boganyi and later that year, my first quartet, which introduced me to what is still one of my favourite pieces, Mendelsohn’s Requiem to Fanny.
The luminous ballroom at One & Only
On this evening, the artist featured was Istvan Vardai, a cellist, but he was not the only celebrity in the room. No, that honour definitely went to his cello, the Dupre Cello, a Stradivarius from the late 1600s that had famously been owned by the tragic and talented Jacqueline du Pre. Vardai played two Bach cello suites (1 and 5). He also played a piece by Gaspar Cassado, who he explained was a student of the famous cellist Pablo Casals. The piece was inspired by Spanish dances and Bach. The other piece was by Zoltan Kodaly which was also inspired by dance (Hungarian folk in this case) and Bach. One could see that the cellist had put a lot of thought into his selection, as the pieces were all linked in one way or another. The only thing that could have made the whole experience better was if Vardai had also chosen to play Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, a personal favourite so sublimely played in the past by Jackie du Pre.
Still September! Much Ado About Nothing at Dubai Opera
Full disclosure: I have never watched a play by Shakespeare. I have seen screenings of plays and movie versions of plays but that’s not the same thing. Naturally, I was excited when I received the Dubai Opera mailer, and I kept googling the New Shakespeare Company to see what the production was like. However, as the show in Dubai was their first ever, there were no details available.
Fan of the bard or not, there’s no way I can understand any play merely by viewing it, so I did the sensible thing: I found a PDF of the play online and began reading it in preparation. I was attracted to its strong female characters, and at some point I realized there was quite a lot of innuendo, and a lot of smutty jokes, a healthy amount of it by the women. I also read some reviews and criticism, just so I’d know what to watch out for.
When the performance started, I was bit disappointed to realise that the company had made an artistic choice to set it in 1950s Italy and not the 16th century. There was also a lot of singing and dancing, and the rom-com bits rather than the darker undercurrents in the play were emphasized. Italian songs were sung between scene changes: a cast member or two would strum and sing while the others removed or brought props as though it was part of the action. It was all a bit over the top, but then so is Shakespearean comedy. The cast leaned into it rather than apologize for it, which made it work. There was plenty of slapstick which I believe would’ve gladdened the Elizabethan heart. The actor who played Benedick was a standout for me, and his declaration of love was so sweet, so heartfelt, that one almost believed it.
On that light-ish note ended my cultural pursuits for the year. I was meant to head to the Sharjah Book Fair (for Vikram Seth’s session) and the Emirates LitFest launch press conference, both in November, but events conspired to prevent it. Better luck next year, I am sure!