How the BBC Philharmonic took the desert by storm

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The Independent Culture
YOU HAVE to travel far to find a New Year's Day concert that isn't a snow-sodden compote of Johann Strauss, and this New Year I did: to Oman. This sunny Gulf state has yet to make an impact on the international concert world, but it is trying.

The problem has always been the Koran. The Prophet Mohammed wasn't much of a musician, and until fairly recently the Omani-in-the-souk would probably have told you that music was sinful. As a consequence, there was very little of it to be had; and before I left for my trip I was shown, by a British politician, a vintage Foreign Office communique that makes the point. Headed "Difficulties in verifying a Bb clarinet score in a country where none can read music", it discusses the problem of establishing the tune of the Oman National Anthem. No one at the time had a clue - not least because, as the communique explains, "the last occasion on which this piece is known to have been played was on a gramophone at a reception given by the Military Secretary in honour of the Sultan, who inadvertently sat on the record afterwards and broke it". The only evidence of what the tune might be was the said Bb clarinet score; and as there wasn't, apparently, a single person in Oman who possessed and could play a clarinet, its credentials were in question.

But that was in the 1960s, and things have clearly changed. The current Sultan is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his succession to the throne - achieved through what was enigmatically described to me as an "almost bloodless" coup in which the British played a major part - and when the British Ambassador to Oman asked the Sultan what he would like from us to commemorate the occasion, the Sultan said "a British orchestra". The request was passed on to the British Council who, surprisingly, had never initiated a full orchestral tour before, but could hardly refuse a command from the highest level of Government. And so it was that last Sunday a jet, chartered by the Sultan, flew to Oman the entire BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the conductors Yan Pascal Tortelier and Sir Edward Downes, pianist Kathryn Stott and hanger-on Michael White for what turned out to be a rather remarkable expedition.

It wasn't so much the performances that stood out, although they were strong and triumphed over trying circumstances, with a particularly fine Tchaikovsky Four under Downes - whose special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic has survived the blow of his deteriorating eyesight. To watch Downes steer the orchestra he ran for 11 years through the emotional tempests of such a score is to realise how little the relationship between conductor and players depends on reading the notes, and how much on chemistry, inspiration and trust.

The programming wasn't so remarkable either: dominated by standard repertory Beethoven and Elgar, including a Cockaigne Overture whose name had been excised from the programme book because the Sultan didn't like the sound of it.

No, the remarkable thing about this visit was the event itself: overwhelmed by diplomatic niceties and royal protocol, but unearthing the bizarre if autocratic charm of an infant musical culture governed in much the ancien regime man- ner that would have been familiar to Haydn and Mozart. The Sultan is, in effect, a 20th-century Middle-Eastern counterpart of an 18th-century Euro- pean prince-bishop. Having decided that he wanted Western music, he has set up - from scratch - a Western musical establishment on 18th- century lines: despotic but benevolent, and largely dedicated to his personal pleasure.

To give one example, he kept the BBC Philharmonic and Tortelier waiting on the platform for one-and-a-quarter hours before he turned up for their first concert - only to present Tortelier afterwards with an pounds 8,000 gold watch, which I'd say was adequate compensation.

To give another, he decided several years ago that Oman should have its own orchestra; and as the country had no instrumentalists apart from pipers (the Sultan was educated at Sandhurst where he developed a passion for the bagpipes) he sent emissaries out into the desert to track down children with some vague promise of musical talent. By all accounts the talent rarely amounted to more than an ability to count in time - what else could you expect? - but it was gathered in regardless, fitted out with instruments, and turned into the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. As yet, despite the grand name, it's no more than a youth orchestra with a rather extreme age-range, from eight to 28. But the idea is for it to grow into maturity with its players; and having seen it in action I can say that it's the most extraordinary example of incubated musicianship I've ever encountered. The players live in a handsomely equipped boarding school-cum-monastery- cum-mosque in the desert, run under the military auspices of the Royal Guard. They are all paid a government salary, even the eight-year-olds, and progress is encouraged by small presents from the Sultan, like the odd car.

Part of the BBC Philharmonic's duty in Oman was to provide further encouragement - by example - and two bus-loads of BBC players (who would no doubt appreciate the odd car themselves) went out to the desert school to teach classes and play alongside the Omanis under Tortelier's baton. No one pretended that it amounted to more than a glancing encounter, but it sealed a Muscat- Manchester bond that will bring Omanis to study at the Royal Northern College as from this year. And, if nothing else, it must have been a morale-builder for young Arabs dedicating their lives to a species of Western art with which their friends and families have limited sympathy and less understanding.

The unanswerable question is whether these Omani musicians will ever want to go back to their cosseted but culturally isolated desert world once they've tasted Manchester (or rather, Britain). And there is an attendant question of how long the cosseting can continue. The Sultan's largesse is dependent on oil, which provides more than 80 per cent of his country's income, and one day the oil will run out: official statistics give it as little as 17 years. What happens then is anybody's guess. But for the moment the largesse is generous, visionary, and touching in its regard for the BBC as a role model. Those Britons in high places who seem bent on dismembering the Corporation would do well to take more notice of observers abroad who have nothing like it and dearly wish they had.

As for the Oman National Anthem, I can report that it has been rescued from oblivion and will soon be heard every day on Omani Radio. Naturally it will be heard in a recording by the BBC Philharmonic.