Friday, March 20, 2009


A quarter of a century ago the Sultan of Oman decreed a visit to his capital Muscat of the London Symphony Orchestra; I went as a scribe and hanger-on. Especially for the visit he had also decreed that a large hotel be built with a concert hall in the middle of it. And lo! It came to pass, Al Bustan Hotel, nestling between limestone crags that look naked because there is no soil, therefore no trees so that they look almost unreal, like fibre glass. The LSO was somewhat apprehensive about the visit as it feared that in Arabia there might be liquid but without alcohol in it. But when we arrived off our flight at four in the morning we were greeted in the hotel atrium with the sounds of the harp, the splashing of fountains and the popping of champagne corks. Moreover when the lads and lasses retired to their rooms, they found a bottle of Johnny Walker beside each bed. The week was to be more enjoyable than anticipated! The atrium, by the way, is 115 feet high, the dome hoisting huge chandeliers, the whole hotel de luxe, the cuisine likewise.

The Concert Hall was well designed, spacious, an 800-seater, well upholstered, main colour dark plum with goodish acoustics that have been improved subsequently. The conductor was the former LSO leader, John Georgiadis and before the first of the two concerts he was instructed to stand to await the arrival of the Sultan. He stood for some forty-five minutes. Before the second concert he sat down on a chair to await the equally late arrival of the monarch. The Sultan was not best pleased with the apparent incivility. The Sultan has ruled the state absolutely since 1970. And successfully, his subjects respect him. To quote only one statistic, in 1970 there were three schools in Oman, now there are over a thousand. And by law, buildings have to have national characteristics, such as crenellations, they are mostly white and do not scrape the sky, having a slightly toytown appearance, pleasing.

The Sultan was pleased with the LSO visit but had sensibly decided that Oman must have its own orchestra. So some thirty or so boys were selected to form an orchestra in the future, now called the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Instruments to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds were ordered from Boosey and Hawkes, tutors engaged, mostly from the U.K.

So I was keen to hear the result 25 years later; to find what progress had been made. The first thing I noticed was that quite a few of the boys were by now bald. Also that there was nearly a score of girls in the band, looking in their uniforms of headdresses, shawls and draperies of red with green tunics, the colours of the Omani flag, like so many Red Riding Hoods. The programme of the concert I attended on March 2 was quite demanding: the prelude to Verdi’s Nabucco, a suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, not the usual one we hear for strings only but one with full orchestra and harpsichord, and the First Symphony of Sibelius. The conductor was Simon Wright, brother of that Wright who Rogers BBC music and the Proms. He obviously commands the respect of the orchestra and it played proficiently for him, with great enthusiasm; the first tutti in the Verdi nearly knocked the audience out of its plush seats. The first oboe and the bassoons were first class, the strings occasionally dodgy but this was a real orchestra and will improve if it continues to have good visiting conductors, who get on well with the players. Sir Colin Davis was here a little time ago but sadly did not hit it off too well with the band, so that a repeat of his concert in London’s Barbican on March 5 was scrubbed.

I cannot pretend that this orchestra is of international standard yet but I can say that the concert I went to was a pleasurable experience that I would willingly repeat. Simon Wright, conductor of the Leeds Choral Society for many years, did an excellent job; maybe his brother should give him a London concert.

No comments: