Mahler in Marrakech

When I interviewed conductor Olivier Holt in 2016 about his work with l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc he explained that his mission with the Moroccan orchestra was "to provoke curiosity and joy". There is no better evidence of that mission than his ambitious programme next month which brings Mahler's Fifth Symphony to four Moroccan cities including Marrakech. The concerts are this year's contribution to the orchestra's annual celebration of Les religions à l’unisson promoting unity, tolerance and peace between the three great monotheistic religions*. Paired with the Mahler symphony is an arrangement of Schubert's Ave Maria commissioned by l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc with soloists including tenor Smahi El Harati, who has sung the Muslim proclamation Allahu Akbar (God is great) for a concert audience including Pope Francis and Morocco's King Mohammed VI.

That header photo was taken by me at an al fresco performance by l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc musicians in Essaouira. My first encounter with Olivier Holt and his orchestra was at a performance in Essaouira of the Mozart Requiem which I described as "having a power and intensity that contrasted sharply with the polished and soulless 'London today Edinburgh tomorrow' jet set music making that dominates the European festival scene". L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc is not a scratch band and its ranks are judiciously strengthened by imported European musicians. But neither is it the Berlin Philharmonic. For me there is little to admire in today's celebrity-dominated classical music. But I deeply admire the work of Olivier Holt and his Moroccan orchestra. Even with a seasoned band four consecutive performances of Mahler 5 in different cities is ambitious, and I hope that Olivier will not mind my sharing his observation that his vision for the orchestra is sometimes accompanied by nightmares.

This will not be the first time that a Mahler symphony has been performed in Morocco. Last year French musicians performed a chamber reduction of the composer's Fourth Symphony in Rabat, Fez, and Agadir. But it is almost certainly the first performance of the Fifth Symphony, and a Mahler first in Marrakech. (There are online references to the French musicologist and biographer of Mahler Henry-Louis de La Grange lecturing on the composer in Morocco; however I can find no further information as to whether this was linked to a performance.)

Outreach and engagement are the trending topics in classical music with tours of the Middle and Far East - Gulf States, China etc - being trumpeted as examples of broadening engagement. But all too often celebrity orchestras are handsomely sponsored for these tours by corporations for promotional purposes, and the backbone of audiences are local VIPs enjoying lavish hospitality. That is certainly not the case with l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc. I have attended two of their concerts in Morocco travelling at my own cost, and Olivier Holt and his musicians produced memorable performances under conditions that would send Simon Rattle screaming back to the acoustically perfect comfort zone of Berlin's Philharmonie. The capacity audience for that Mozart Requiem in an Essaouira school sports hall - for which Sir Simon and peers please note, tickets were free - included many local people, most of who I would wager had never previously attended a Western classical concert. That is the real meaning of outreach and engagement, and it takes courage and a healthy disregard for comfort zones to deliver it.

* This year's celebration of tolerance and peace between the three great monotheistic religions is poignantly relevant. Morocco is inherently a safe country: its homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants is less than half that of the United States. But in December last year two female Scandinavian tourists were brutally murdered by extremists near the village of Imlil in Morocco's High Atlas. As regular readers will know I have close associations with Imlil, and the impact of that terrible event still resounds.

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