Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 - aka Land of Hope and Glory - resonated across Doha's waterfront last month, with conductor Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing their socks off to an enthusiastic but largely ex-pat audience. A decent sprinkling of curious Qatari nationals were sampling what could be the unfamiliar musical territory of Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" and Benjamin Britten's evocations of Suffolk storms in a programme of British classics. I say unfamiliar because these recent performances were the first ever full scale concerts by a British orchestra in the state. Perhaps, given their current stake in London's real estate, the inclusion of London-rich Cockaigne by Elgar and Vaughan Williams' nostalgic London Symphony may have brought a smile to their faces.
The concerts were part of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture, a collaboration between the British Council and Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) to develop links across culture, education, science and sport. The year is reaching its climax, with the opening in September of Pearls at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the unveiling in Doha of 14 gigantic new bronze sculptures by Damien Hirst. The sculptures, situated outside the Sidra Medical and Research Centre, chart human gestation from conception to birth; they were commissioned by QMA to run alongside Relics - Hirst's first solo show in the Middle East and also his largest ever retrospective. More pomp and circumstance perhaps, depending on your view of British art's erstwhile enfant terrible, but still a landmark exhibition.
At a time when Qatar is coming under international scrutiny like never before, particularly as hosts of the 2022 football World Cup , initiatives like this represent an opportunity for our two countries to learn about each other. It has resulted in many firsts, not least a mini-showcase from the Unlimited deaf and disabled arts season, a triumph of the London 2012 Festival, which took place in Qatar earlier this year, and a major initiative spearheaded by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, the British Council and the Greater London Authority to pilot the teaching of Arabic language and culture in UK schools. Alongside the other activities a cultural management programme is helping serve and service the rapidly growing arts infrastructure in Qatar, reflecting the global demand for British skills in the creative industries by developing and marketing a coherent skills and professional development offer from across the UK, covering everything from museum curation to theatre production skills and screen-writing workshops.
At the more playful end of the scale, the V&A show has taught us that pearls are not in fact formed from grit, but a tapeworm that infects oysters. Or, as the UK's Daily Mail put it "A parasitic invertebrate that has just been pooed out by a shark is hardly the place you'd go to find that classy necklace." To think that such a beautiful object has such scatological origins is a timely reminder that even from the most unlikely beginnings, there are many things that unite us both geographically and historically. In the margins, I glanced at the menu in the café at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha which included camel cottage pie - apparently a favourite with staff and visitors alike. What is even more curious is that this is the invention of French house chef Alain (Michelin) Ducasse, no less. I could not help but wonder if this is part of some sinister Gallic plot to discredit English cuisine (sorry, cooking)? Perhaps when the French get their year of culture in Qatar we can persuade Jamie Oliver to conjure up something unspeakable involving frogs' legs, maybe deep fried with ketchup...