Berklee comes to Abu Dhabi

The Norman Foster designed UAE Pavilion has finally found a tenant. Originally designed for the 2010 Shanghai Expo and inspired by the Emirate’s sand dunes, the swooping coloured stainless steel clad building has been used only intermittently since it was installed next to the Manarat al Saadiyat after the expo closed – it has occasionally been used as spillover for Abu Dhabi Art but the rest of the time it’s been primarily a giant broom cupboard.

With a capacity of 450 people and including 3,000m2 of exhibition space, the pavilion was one of the largest structures built for the Shanghai Expo. Now it’s the new home of the equally new Berklee Abu Dhabi, a local outpost of the internationally renowned contemporary music and performing arts institution Berklee College of Music.

This sounds like a seriously good addition to the Saadiyat scene. Berklee Abu Dhabi will be an arts education centre of some 3,900m2, with facilities including rehearsal studios, practice rooms, ensemble rooms, and a tech lab, plus a top-class recording studio and a performance space. If needed, Berklee Abu Dhabi will also be able to access the performance spaces in the Manarat al Saadiyat.

Berklee is the world’s largest independent college of contemporary music, offering innovative college-level courses in a wide range of contemporary and historic music styles. At the last count Berklee alumni had won something over 290 Grammy Awards, 19 Emmy Awards, five Tony Awards and five Academy Awards. Based in Boston, it has also operated a campus in Valencia, Spain; it has a formal conservatory as well (it merged with the Boston Conservatory a few years ago, the combined institution becoming The Boston Conservatory at Berklee) and runs an excellent distance learning curriculum as Berklee Online.

Berklee Abu Dhabi “will develop and deliver workshops, masterclasses, courses, ensembles and labs”. There will also be “a number of annual performances”, and collaboration with DCT Abu Dhabi also sees the creation of a $5 million scholarship fund. That will allow students (presumably from the UAE) to pursue degree programmes in Boston, New York, Valencia, or through Berklee Online; attend a summer programme in Boston or Valencia; or attend a similar programme in Abu Dhabi.

The institution launches more or less immediately, with its first semester running until May 2020. Sessions include DJing, Turntablism, Songwriting, Music Production, Dance, Contemporary String Techniques, Music Business, Recording and Mixing, “The Music of the Middle East”, Jazz Improv and Music Theory, and “Creative Entrepreneurship”.

“Berklee Abu Dhabi is another innovative addition to the Saadiyat Cultural District and to Abu Dhabi’s cultural offering,” said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, who added that “our Emirate also prides itself on its partnerships with preeminent international institutions” and noted that “this agreement [to launch Berklee Abu Dhabi] is an important step in further establishing the Emirate as a global hub for culture and education.

“We are firm advocates of the power of the arts, and the essential role they play in our daily live and we are incredibly proud that we can now offer the highest calibre of music and performing arts instruction to the Abu Dhabi community, and to those in the region and beyond.”

Another contribution to Abu Dhabi’s soft-power positioning, then. For his part Berklee President Roger H Brown, who signed the agreement with DCT Abu Dhabi, sees a useful expansion of his organisation – “this close partnership with DCT Abu Dhabi provides us with a connection to one of the most culturally diverse and historically rich parts of the world, and to the vitality and forward-thinking vision of Abu Dhabi” – and also feels committed to the value of Berklee’s work: “we believe we can have a positive impact on the future of music and dance in the region and around the world”.

We believe we can have a positive impact on the future of music and dance in the region and around the world …

Gael Hedding has been named director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, an interesting appointment given that Hedding is a music producer and engineer rather than a performing artist or a professional teacher; that exemplifies the Berklee attitude, more pragmatic and practical than the rarefied conservatoire approach.

The Lebanese-American singer-songwriter Mayssa Karaa is Artistic Director; both Karaa and Hedding are Berklee alumni, and Hedding also taught at the Valencia campus.

Berklee Abu Dhabi will recruit both permanent and guest instructors for its faculty, ideally from the region. In the meantime some of the big-name Berklee instructors will be running courses in Abu Dhabi.

Among them is the executive director of Berklee NYC and Emmy-winning composer Stephen Webber, who among other things founded Berklee’s DJ and turntablism classes; Ruka White, the Director of the Commercial Dance Intensive, Programme Director of the Berklee Summer Initiative, and Assistant Professor of Dance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee; the noted Palestinian multi-style cellist and composer Naseem Alatrash; and Emilien Moyon, director of the Global Entertainment and Music Business Graduate Programme at Berklee in Valencia.

It will be interesting to see how the admission process for Berklee Abu Dhabi works. Elsewhere it’s based on a combination of audition, interview, and academic record; and acceptance is by no means guaranteed – for Berklee Boston and Berklee Online it runs at around 60 percent.

And Berklee is by no means a cheap option for students; the college’s website says the total cost at Berklee Boston for 2019–2020 students is $69,207.48 if you’re an undergraduate living off campus, a bit less if you’re doing a diploma rather than a degree course. In the States the school offers very few scholarships or grants. Presumably DCT Abu Dhabi will help out in that regard for local students.

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