Classical music's pursuit of the dollar into regions controlled by despotic regimes has long been a preoccupation on this blog, with the uneasy marriage of art and politics in the Gulf States receiving particular attention. To date On An Overgrown Path has been a lone voice on this topic, so I was heartened to find my esteemed fellow blogger Norman Lebrecht joining me in taking a critical position on classical music's exploitation of the petro-dollar. In a new post on Slipped Disc* about the purchase of a crystal encrusted Steinway by an oil sheikh, Norman rails against the Qatari regime with these words:
The Qatar economy is built on tenured labour from the Indian subcontinent. The slave workers have their passports confiscated on arrival, are kept in camps outside the city and forced to work in temperatures of up to 50 degrees C. (You won’t hear about this on Qatar-based Al-Jazeera; yes, we’ve seen it, in the company of the late Lorin Maazel). That’s how Qatar sheikhs get to afford crystal Steinways.Now Norman is a committed activist, but in the past he has not been noted for his criticism of the Gulf regimes. So I thought it would be enlightening to explore the background to this epiphany. His own explanation that he had "seen it, in the company of the late Lorin Maazel" is the starting point for that exploration, and it leads to a 2008 post by him. This recounts how he attended the inaugral concert of the Qatar Philharmonic in the emirate. That concert was conducted by the late Lorin Maazel, who was on the podium because he was managed by Harrison Parrott. In common with other large management agents Harrison Parrott are expanding aggressively into new markets such as the Gulf States to compensate for falling revenues in Europe and North America. In his post Norman depicts how at the concert he sat between "senior officials" of the Qatari regime. He does not tell us why he was in Qatar, so let's assume he was on vacation and blagged his way into this exalted company in the interests of investigative journalism. That 2008 post, which is headed "Gulf orchestra a mirage", is equivocal, but it does not rail against the "slave state".
Fast forward to 2013 when Han-Na Chang was appointed music director of the Qatar Philharmonic. The announcement of her appointment can be read on the Harrison Parrott website because Ms Chang was signed to the agency in 2010. That is Han-Na Chang with the orchestra in the header photo, and her appointment was expanded on by Norman in a generally complimentary interview on Slipped Disc. The full version of that interview is no longer available online, but there is a sizable extract on Gulf Arts News.
Last year the Qatar Philharmonic and Han-Na Chang made their debut at the BBC Proms as part of a Harrison Parrot managed tour. At that time only one dissenting voice pointed out Qatar's appalling human rights record, and it wasn't Norman Lebrecht. Shortly after that Proms debut things went pear shaped for Ms. Chang and she left the orchestra in mid-tour; her abrupt exit was covered sympathetically on Slipped Disc in a post titled Why I quit, by walkout conductor. Coincidentally, sometime after Ms. Chang's sudden departure Norman saw the light about the repressive Qatari regime, a commendable epiphany that finds expression in his latest post. Hopefully we will now see similar invective on Slipped Disc directed at the equally repressive regime in neighbouring Abu Dhabi, which has hosted among others, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, Jordi Savall, Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter.
* Indirect links are used when referencing Norman Lebrecht's writings to avoid contributing to click bait inflation; the referenced material should appear at the top of the Google search results. For those too young to know, my headline quotes from Pete Seeger's song 'Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)'. More on Pete here. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.