November 21, 2009
Yesterday saw stage rehearsals and sound checks with nearly all the musicians present. (The prospect of "special guests" still lingers...) Details of the finale were still being worked out, no easy matter with star singers from such different worlds trying to figure out to wind up a completely unprecedented event. Suffice it to say that John Lennon's "Imagine" has surely never been rendered in so many languages and with reference to so many styles as it will be tonight. We'll see how that turns out, but my guess is the vibe will be soaring by that time, and although the performance may not go exactly according to plan, it too will soar.
Sean Barlow arrived in the morning, and for us the highlight of the day was meeting and hearing the Iraqi singer Rida Abdulla. This man has a harrowing story of arrest, physical abuse, and escape from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He is also a prodigy classical musician and highly trained composer and arranger. It's a long and remarkable story that winds up with him a heart-throb superstar throughout the Middle East from his current base in Dubai. He has performed in the US before, but never in such a public and mainstream setting as Las Vegas's MGM Grand Garden Arena. Most of his musicians had their visas "canceled," after they were granted--a bizarre and disturbing story I'm still trying to decipher. In any case, lacking much of his usual ensemble, he is working with a team filled out with top-knotch players and singers recruited by Sahra producer Dawn Elder. Based on the way they sounded in rehearsal, this should be just fine.
We snagged an interview with Rida and found him soulful and charming. He gave us a taste of his extraordinary voice, and talked about how his Iraqi fans expect catharsis from the tragedy of their lives in his every performance. If they don't cry at least once during the performance, he has fallen short of expectations. At the end of our talk, Khaled spirited Rida away to coach him on a part for "Imagine," another twist in the developing saga of the finale.
At night, everyone was invited to a black tie reception in The Mansion, a gorgeous zone of the MGM Grand complex that has the feel of a lush, Mediterranean garden. Palestinian maestro Simon Shaheen led a small ensemble in a brief but superb performance that culminated with his unrecorded composition "The Wall," written in the wake of Shaheen's recent stay among orphan children in the West Bank. The piece served as a reminder that one goal of Sahra is to raise funds for childrens' charities. Shaheen summoned attentive MGM executives, including MGM Mirage CEO Gamal Aziz, close to the stage and then held forth with this stunningly deep 10-minute instrumental piece, which showcases his singularly beautiful violin mastery. Those near the stage were rapt through the entire performance. It's fair to say this was a rare moment in the history of The Mansion, a place generally reserved for the highest-rollers who visit Vegas. (The photo shows Khaled, Dawn Elder and Gamal Aziz).
Soon after Shaheen and his ensemble finished, the headliners of Sahra arrived. Khaled, with a red rose in his black jacket, sucessfuly charmed Mr. Aziz, and two were inseparable for the rest of the evening. Referring to the still-sore subject of this week's Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifying soccer match, Mr. Aziz, an Egyptian, had quipped that Algeria "should not have done that"--i.e. win the match. But he sure didn't hold this against Khaled.
As I write this afternoon, the metal detectors and turnstiles are being set up at the Arena entrance, dancers are rehearsing their moves on the ever-more-fabulous stage, musicians are chilling in their rooms, or taking in the blazing Las Vegas sun, the tech and production crew are going all out, and the fans are gathering. Now comes the moment of truth.