Thursday, January 19, 2012

36 Hours in Arabia

It's time for a pop quiz!    Who can tell me (without using Google) which country the following flag represents?

Not sure???   Here's a clue:  its capital city is Musqat.

Still don't know?

Well, of course I'm referring to the well-known and not at all obscure Sultanate of Oman!

What's that, you say?? You've never even heard of Oman?   Neither had I until recently, when I decided to learn the flags of the world.   Do you want to know how I remembered this one?   Whenever I saw the distinctive curved dagger in the corner, I would think, "Oh, MAN! I'll never get this one!  Oh-man = OMAN!"   I obviously never thought I would EVER have a chance to visit this little-known nation on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, but this week it became my foreign country number 37!

The Philharmonic had originally planned a two-day stay in Abu Dhabi, where I've visited already twice, but the plans fell through somehow and instead we helped break in the brand new Royal Opera House of Musqat with a program of Russian music under the baton of Valery Gergiev.   Sultan Qaboos, the leader of Oman since the 1970s, has a reputation for being dedicated to a policy of modernization and tolerance, quite similar to his neighbors in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain.  He owns a humongous yacht, several elaborate palaces, and is reputedly a huge classical music fan.   Naturally.

I mainly want to let the photos tell the story, but I have to lay a little groundwork first.   You see, this Gergiev 'block' got underway last week with another two-day tour to Germany.   We visited Hannover and Cologne (Kölsch and a meterwurst highly recommended by the way), returned to Wien to perform our normal weekend subscription concerts, and then immediately following Sunday's concert rushed to the airport and took off towards the desert.   

With the time difference, we arrived in Musqat at around 12:30 AM on Monday.   Airports don't tend to be fully staffed at that time of night, as we soon found out.   There were 2 windows open at immigration and it was very slow going.   Immigration took about 2 minutes per person, times 100 people... let's just say we were there for a while.  

Not what you want to see at 1AM
At least Sultan Qaboos was there to greet us!

We finally made it to our hotel around 2:45 AM, and I crashed hard.    The next morning I awoke to see this outside my balcony: 

That's a pleasant surprise if I ever saw one!
Not sure what that island is, but it's HUGE

The Arabian Riviera??

Some beautiful foothills in the distance
I didn't make it out of bed in time for breakfast, but I did manage to drag myself downstairs for a wonderful buffet lunch with some colleagues.    Much hummus was consumed.    In the afternoon I did some practice and then decided to do a bit of walking around.

I can't imagine a more stark contrast to Vienna in January

Seems like all the buildings are white... suppose it helps with the heat

I spent some time reading in the hotel garden
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (2nd largest in the world)
The concert went really well, and I was blown away by the over-the-top splendor of the hall.   The acoustics were not very well suited to our orchestra, but it worked out okay in the end.   

We did a couple pieces I had never heard of, but that I was really glad to be introduced to.  First was Rimsky-Korsakov's Invisible City of Kitezh Suite, which is a real gem in my opinion.   Second was a brilliant and fun jazz-influenced piece by Rhodin Shchedrin entitled Concerto No. 1 "Naughty Limericks".    And we were again treated to a rousing performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 by the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition winner Daniil Trifonov.   The guy is 20 years old and makes the most amazing music.   Really inspiring stuff.

The Royal Opera House Musqat after the concert
On the way back to Vienna we were treated to some breathtaking views, particularly over southwest Iran and southern Iraq.

The Omani landscape just after take-off

Gorgeous mountain ranges in Iran

If you'd like to see even more photos, check out this album.

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