Lebanon music festival is a ‘fighter,’ held despite coronavirus, economic collapse

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The Baalbek Festival in the east of Lebanon has over the last half of the century been interrupted by war and violence, but even amid ongoing economic turmoil in Lebanon, this year the show went on as usual.

“The Baalbek Festival is a fighter,” said Nayla du Friege, the festival’s president. “Every year we have problems in Lebanon or the area, usually we have security problems, but every year the idea is to continue, and have what we call cultural resistance.”

The festival, which premiered in 1956, is the oldest in the Middle East. It has been interrupted before by war and violence – first the Lebanese civil war and more recently the war in Syria, which saw armed groups infiltrate Lebanon not far from Baalbek.

This year, its primary challenge was COVID-19. But on Sunday, the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra nonetheless performed a concert in the Roman ruins 10 kilometers from the Syrian border that over the years have hosted performers ranging from Miles Davis to Oum Khalthoum to Shakira.

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Harout Fazlian conducts the Lebanse Philharmonic Orchestra while rehearsing at the Baalbek Roman ruins in eastern Lebanon on Saturday, July 4, 2020. (David Enders)
Harout Fazlian conducts the Lebanse Philharmonic Orchestra while rehearsing at the Baalbek Roman ruins in eastern Lebanon on Saturday, July 4, 2020. (David Enders)

“I think this is the first concert in the world of this magnitude to take place after COVID-19,” said Harout Fazlian, director of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, noting that the orchestra and choir and had been spaced according to social distancing guidelines.

Baalbek, he said, was the perfect place for a concert to mark a return to cultural life after lockdowns caused by the virus.

“I have conducted here many times, it is a very special place to me, it’s a magical place, it’s a cosmic place, and the music that we are giving right now, it’s a cosmic message. I could say, to everyone, to all humanity, it’s a message of hope and unity and solidarity,” Fazlian said.

The concert showcased international works such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” as well as more local choices, like pieces by the Rahbani brothers who were longtime composers for Fairouz, Lebanon’s best-known singer.

“At the end of the day, as Beethoven says, ‘Under the skies, we are all one, we are all the same, we are brothers,’ and this is true, and this is a message, this is not a concert for me anymore, it never was, this is not a concert for me, this is a message,” Fazlian said.

These are not joyous times for Lebanon – in addition to the pandemic, the country is also battling an economic collapse that has plunged half its population into poverty and seen its currency lose 80 percent of its value. Over the last week, a fuel shortage has caused extended power cuts across the country, up to 20 hours in some places.

“The economic crisis in Lebanon is really bad and people have started to starve. They are in need of food, and they are stuck in their houses,” said Rafik Ali Ahmed, an actor who performed a poem by Khalil Gibran during the show.

The concert, which was held without a live audience because of COVID-19, was broadcast live on Lebanese stations. It was viewed widely, with many on social media expressing nostalgia for better times in the country.

Some, however, compared the performance to the musicians who purportedly played for passengers of the Titanic as the ship sank.

“Requiem for a small broken nation,” tweeted Jad Chaaban, an economist who frequently speaks out against the Lebanese government.

The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the choir and the crew, volunteered their time for the performance. But even as the state goes broke, Fazlian said he was confident that the orchestra, which is funded by the government, would survive.

“I think the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people understand the importance of music, and I believe that music is the best ambassador of your country,” Fazlian said.

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