Barely a week after leaving Singapore I am treated to a welcome dinner in a swanky French restaurant in Abu Dhabi. It came as a surprise, not least because I have not only never set foot in Abu Dhabi before, but the only person I vaguely know here is one with whom I have been in contact only through email. So I was expecting an awkward hour or two with a bunch of complete strangers and feeling very much the odd one out.
It was certainly a very mixed bag gathered round the dinner table. A dermatologist, a chiropractor, a dentist, a corporate lawyer, a man building a water treatment plant and another building ships, a fistful of oil people, a couple from an artists’ agency and three journalists, two from Al-Jazeera and a foreign correspondent from an Indian newspaper. Along with assorted wives and husbands, that made a table of 20.
Far from feeling the odd man out, however, I was quite the centre of attention for, thanks to my perceptive email contact, the group assembled all knew of me, and several I had either met with or worked with before. One of the journalists I’d actually lived next door to in KL while another of them had been a colleague with the BBC in Belfast a million years ago (the third had written an article about me when I had been involved in the vain attempt to set up an orchestra in Kochi). The chiropractor and one of the construction people knew me second hand – we shared mutual good friends – while one of the oil people had been a colleague of my brother’s at Total. The shipbuilder had helped finance the research I’d undertaken into the ethnic music of Borneo back in the early 1990s and most of the rest had, at some time or another, either been in the audience of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur or had been avid readers of Gramophone magazine. It struck me that the world of classical music lovers is a small and intimate one which is akin to a club where you can usually find a mutual acquaintance one step away.
When, well into their 50s, my parents moved from the London in which they had lived all their lives to the wilds of the Surrey/Hampshire border (true, just 40 miles from London but a psychological world away), they went with the advice of their London parish priest ringing in their ears. “Get involved with the local church, and you will soon be a part of the community”. It worked for them then, but I have long since found that church communities have changed and strangers feel alienated not only by the closed communities churches have become, forced into the defensive by threats from other religions and a growing secularisation of society, but by the fact that forms of worship are no longer standardised. The Anglican church is terrible in this respect; the one and only time I attended a service at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore, I felt so alien that I had to leave; it was Easter Day but Anglicans in Singapore don’t recognise Easter. And I abandoned church-going in Malaysia when a mentally-retarded bishop decreed that Ash Wednesday would be put back a week to avoid clashing with Chinese New Year. The Catholics don’t do any better, and after years of playing the organ at masses in churches and cathedrals the length and breadth of Ireland and never once feeling out of place, a trip to two Catholic churches, one in KL and one in Singapore, left me feeling so utterly alien (not helped by everyone staring at me as if I was some Al-Qaeda operative infiltrating them to commit harm) that I dare not even venture into one of their churches again. Traditional music, once the great solace of church worship, has, in any case, been sacrificed for the cheep and quick gratification of the masses offered by fifth-rate songs performed by tenth rate “musicians” under the guidance of bottom-of-the-heap ministers who are so ashamed of their calling they refuse to wear clerical garb and insist on being called by their forenames (God forbid such a categorical profession of faith as to describe it as a Christian name).
Now, however, I realise that being a classical musician is the way to make friends and feel accepted by society when in a strange land. At my welcome dinner we did not once talk about music. So varied were the interests and experiences of our 20 people that the conversation flowed easily, our surroundings encouraging us to discuss at some length the French presidential elections (amazing uniformity – not one of us welcomed the election of Hollande) while, naturally, experiences of Middle Eastern life figured largely.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and friendships were made and renewed. This, surely is another of the many benefits that music brings us. Is there no end to its ability to better the lot of mankind?