The orchestra Director
Date: 12 September 2015
Janet Hassouneh, founder of the UAE’s acclaimed NSO, on her love of melody, multitasking and Michael Jackson’s music.

When did you develop your love of music?

I grew up in the United States and there was always music in our home. My mother would hum and play musical children’s games with us, there would be old 78s [vinyl records] of Benny Goodman and folks dancing in the living room. There were also weekly piano lessons and school musicals.
While at university, I discovered opera and went on to sing with the Seattle Opera. I was spellbound by the music, the drama, the costumes, the sets and, of course, the live orchestra: I was like Dorothy landing in Oz!

Did you go to extremes to protect your voice?

I had to live and work within a vacuum, always being super-sensitive to the physical, mental and emotional requirements of the vocal instrument – which meant having to avoid roller-coaster rides, sports events, hot and cold drinks and extreme temperatures.

What brought you to the UAE?

Love! I moved to Dubai in 1984 with my husband, a former Boeing engineer, who had landed a new job working in the industrial gas field. We raised our two children here and I still performed locally. I was also head of Latifa School for Girls’ music department.

How did the NSO come together?

I’d lived in the UAE for almost 30 years and was acutely aware of the incredible range of musical talent based here, both local and international. I wanted to put together an orchestra that would capture the imagination with some extraordinary performances, and the NSO now comprises more than 100 professional musicians from over 20 different countries. It was a lot of hard work.
I first had to find the right people who shared the vision and were willing to donate time and skills to make it a reality, and we also had to find sponsors to invest in and subsidise the cost of an NSO performance, which is not covered in ticket sales alone.

Do you recall the moment you could see that the orchestra really was going to get beyond a pipe dream?

Yes, I think it was hearing the first rehearsal’s opening strains of the UAE National Anthem, and the orchestra’s first run-through of the Superman theme. It was a very moving experience.

What’s a typical day for you?

Well, it’s certainly long! I tend to live online – Skyping, emailing and so on – often starting at 8am and not finishing before 10pm. There’s so much to bring together, from conversations with Andy Berryman, our amazing conductor, late-night chats with international musicians and composers to press and marketing, even catering – everything. I do have lots of help, but in many ways I’m the producer, bringing the concerts together.

Do your musicians all have day jobs?

They are paid per event, rather than being salaried, and yes, they all have day jobs. Many are music teachers who’ve played in their own orchestras back home, including the UK’s BBC, London Symphony Orchestra and The Hallé.   
Many of our Brass section played with the 300-year-old British Army’s Band Of The Grenadier Guards for the Queen. Every performance features an Emirati soloist, too. We have Gulf singing sensation and NSO ambassador Balqees Fathi in our next concert on October 9.

Tell us about the October concert...

It’s our third Night At The Movies concert and as well as music from films such as Gladiator, The Pink Panther, Star Wars and Disney’s Fantasia, the NSO will perform the world premier of a suite from the new sci-fi film The Drift, especially written in concert form for this performance by the composer James Griffiths, who will be there.

Do you ever have the chance to sing with the orchestra?

Unfortunately I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001, which halted my professional singing career, but not my ability to organise musical events. I still give private vocal tuition when time allows.

Is there a pop star whose music you’d love to adapt for a one-off concert performance?

I always thought it would be fun to do a tribute to Michael Jackson’s music. We did one for the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen last year in Dubai, which was fantastic.
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  • The NSO Symphony Orchestra wishes the UAE, and all its residents, a most joyous 46th UAE National Day.


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