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Culture: June 2008 Archives

A Clockwork Orange… In Reverse

Prison Bars

Amid Despair in a Venezuelan Prison, Strains of Hope From a Music Program

By Scott Dalton
New York Times

Los Teques, Venezuela – When Nurul Asyiqin Ahmad was taken seven months ago to her cell at the National Institute of Feminine Orientation, a prison perched on a hill in this city of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, learning how to play Beethoven was one of the last things on her mind.

"The despair gripped me, like a nightmare had become my life," said Ms. Ahmad, 26, a shy law student from Malaysia who claims she is innocent of charges of trying to smuggle cocaine on a flight from Caracas to Paris. "But when the music begins, I am lifted away from this place." Ms. Ahmad plays violin and sings in the prison's orchestra.

In a project extending Venezuela's renowned system of youth orchestras to some of the country's most hardened prisons, Ms. Ahmad and hundreds of other prisoners are learning a repertory that includes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and folk songs from the Venezuelan plains.

Read more about this at the New York Times website:

Everybody Gets A Piano

Pearl River Piano Company

Keyboard moment in China's cultural evolution

By Petroc Trelawny
The Australian

As my plane makes its final approach into the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the mountains give way briefly to green paddy fields, and then industry takes over.

Beneath are hundreds of vast blue-roofed sheds and smoking red-brick chimney stacks. The landscape is mapped with rail yards and lorry parks; heavily laden barges crawl along the creeks of the Pearl River. With a vast economy that's now larger than that of nearby Hong Kong, Guangdong Province deserves its title as the factory of China. …

I've come to visit a company that last year made 100,000 pianos. The Pearl River Piano Company says it's now the world's largest: 3000 staff work on eight production lines, and it feels more like a car factory than a place making things as delicate and tactile as pianos.

A basic Pearl River piano costs about $1600, a fortune to many Chinese, but well within the budget of the country's burgeoning urban middle class. Their new wealth, combined with a desire to give their offspring a better childhood than they experienced, has led to an obsession with the piano in China. Conservative estimates suggest that 30 million Chinese children are learning the instrument; many reckon the figure is much higher. One academic told me the country was in the grip of piano fever.

Read more about this at The Australian website:,,23910488-16947,00.html

The Acquisition of Cultural Bling?

Qatar Foundation

Qatar, land of oil and excess, gives us the first Arabian Gulf symphony

The United Arab Emirates are embracing classical music, but is this anything more than the acquisition of cultural bling

By John Evans
Times UK Online

Last week the Arabian Gulf, land of oil and excess, got its first symphony. The Qatar Symphony is a four-movement piece lasting almost one hour and is scored for full symphony orchestra. If I tell you that it's written by an Iraqi composer who once laboured under Saddam's regime, you won't be surprised to hear that it's a patriotic affair of whimsical folk tunes and strident marches. But if I then tell you that it's the first step on a journey to making the Gulf the new capital of high art and of classical music, you may fall off your seat.

Earlier, before the work's premiere at the Ritz Carlton in Doha, I'd watched a gang of bulldozers digging a hole for the planned skyscraper next to my hotel. Their ceaseless, subterranean activity seemed to me an analogy for the Gulf's classical-music scene. Bit by bit, it's taking shape – a conservatoire here, a concert hall there. By the time this new skyscraper is built, the foundations for a classical-music scene will have been laid. But is the Gulf really hungry for the arts, or is it building a cultural theme park?

Read more about this at the Times Online website:

Classical Music in Turkey

Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts

Istanbul Music Festival seeks to expand audience with new projects

By Ali Pektas
Today's Zaman

The Istanbul International Music Festival got under way yesterday with a concert by the Vienna Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring violinist Benyamin Sönmez as soloist, at the historic Hagia Eirene Museum.

The festival has a packed schedule in its 36th year and will bring more than 500 musicians from around the world together with classical music lovers through June 30. Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) with support from Borusan Holding, the festival will realize a first this year by bringing together the musicians with the audience, students and young musicians outside concert halls as part of a new project.

Read more about this at the Today's Zaman website:

Rise of the Machines


Are Digital Orchestras a Sign of the Times?

By David Pogue
New York Times

This past weekend, I attended an astonishing performance of "Les Misérables" performed by 13- to 17-year olds at a local theater program. Two things made it memorable: first, that this program's director was able to find such amazing voices in this age group, especially for a show where most of the characters are men. (In my experience, more teenage girls than boys are interested in theater.)

Second, the production came breathtakingly close to simulating a full professional production – on a church rec-room stage that measures about 30 feet across and 12 feet deep. We're talking tiny. "Les Minirables."

And yet it worked, partly because the carefully built, minimal sets and props were just enough to suggest their big-budget Broadway equivalents – and partly because of a digital orchestra that accompanied the cast.

Read more about this at the New York Times website: