x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Musical high season back again for Lebanon's music lovers

With the start of te country's summer festival season this week, we look back at more than half a century of performances that defy disruption

Lebanon's top dance troupe, Caracalla, perform at the Roman temple of Jupiter at the international Baalbek festival in 2002.
Lebanon's top dance troupe, Caracalla, perform at the Roman temple of Jupiter at the international Baalbek festival in 2002.

Summer is typically the high season in Lebanon, and already the country is bustling with tourists, traffic and the trickle of expats returning home from abroad, which will probably turn into a deluge in the weeks and months to come. For more than half a century, the events setting the pace and agenda of the season have been the summer music festivals that animate cities, towns and villages across the country in the months of June, July and August.

Despite the bouts of violence and political instability that periodically disrupt their schedules, the festivals always seem to bounce back, a tribute to Lebanon's resilience and resolve, as well as its enduring entrepreneurial spirit. This year, the festivals of Baalbeck, Beiteddine and Byblos - otherwise known as the big three - are heading into their third peaceful summer with fingers crossed, hoping concerts by the likes of Diana Krall, Caetano Veloso and Gorillaz will happen without a hitch.

The festivities begin tonight with the pint-sized pop sensation Mika performing amid the majestic Roman ruins of Baalbeck. And while the season opener is a homecoming of sorts - Mika was born in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and an American father - organisers says it is more about the future than the past. "It is very important for the young generation that we open the festival with the young generation," says Asma Freiha, a member of the Baalbeck festival's executive committee.

Two years ago, Mika played to an adoring crowd of 14,000 on Martyrs Square, in the heart of Downtown Beirut. He charmed the audience with a little Arabic and a lot of charisma, and promised to play again soon. That concert was a milestone not only for its size but also because it marked an unprecedented collaboration between Baalbeck and Beiteddine. Though the organizers are diplomatic in their dealings with one another, the festivals are nonetheless engaged in a fierce, longstanding competition, continually angling to update and reposition themselves in relation to each other. Perhaps because all of the festivals have enjoyed some continuity of late, each has now settled into a distinctive niche.

Baalbeck, the oldest and the most prestigious of them all, has assembled a streamlined season of just six performances organized according to category. Mika, of course, represents pop night. Jazz night comes courtesy the Kevin Mahogany Quintet and Odean Pope's All-Star Nonet. For classical music fans, the Orkiestra Sinfonietta Cracovia is celebrating Chopin's bicentenary. For ballet enthusiasts, the Boris Eifman Ballet Theatre of Saint Petersburg is staging an adaptation of Anna Karenina. Aficionados of oriental music have a concert by Naseer Shamma and the House of Oud Orchestra to look forward to. And what the Baalbeck festival's organizers call "Lebanese night" is, in a fact, a three-night run of the musical "Too Much Love Kills," composed by Melhem Barakat and Ghassan Rahbani.

According to organizers, Baalbeck's point of difference is the sheer spectacle of the site. In terms of monumental Roman architecture, the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus are among the largest and best preserved in the world. While the festival historically staged its performance in either Jupiter or Bacchus, it constructed a new venue last year in the courtyard stretching between them. "You have to do things big, very big," says Freiha. "The site and the venue are so huge that you can't do anything small. We can't afford small."

The insistence on spectacle, however, takes its toll. "This year, for just six events, we have 210 people coming from abroad, and we have to take care of them all - their flights, their food, their transport within Lebanon," Freiha says. "The sites of Byblos and Beiteddine are also easier to manage, and they are not so far from Beirut. But Baalbeck," located 85 kilometres from Beirut and 75 kilometres from Damascus, "is far."

The Beiteddine festival, meanwhile, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a robust, jam-packed programme twice the size of Baalbeck's, accompanied by two exhibitions of art and photography. One is devoted to the history of the festival; the other highlights the Jameel Prize, a biannual initiative by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which awards £25,000 to a contemporary artist or designer inspired by the traditions of Islamic arts and crafts. The show features the work of nine artists - including established and emerging talents such as Reza Abedini, Susan Hefuna, Khosrow Hassanzadeh and the prize winner, Afruz Amighi.

On the main stage, below the Emir Bechir Chehab Palace in the Shouf Mountains, Beiteddine opens a night after Baalbeck with a concert by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Walid Gholmieh and accompanied by the diva Hiba al Kawas, who has pioneered her own brand of operatic arias inspired by Arabic and Andalusian poetry. From there, the program jumps around from an avant-garde circus show by Victoria Chaplin (the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and the granddaughter of Eugene O'Neill) to the venerable jazz singer Diana Krall and the rambunctious, genre-busting 12-piece Pink Martini. Also in the line-up is a tribute to Abdel Halim Hafez by the Moroccan singer Abdou Cherif, the crooner Max Raabe indulging a bit of Weimar Republic nostalgia, a musical rendition of Zorro, the Krakow Chamber Ensemble, Ballet Preljocaj's intriguing pairing of compositions by Gustav Mahler and costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian (considered the greatest living master of traditional Persian music) and "Dakt," a new project by the inimitable Ziad Rahbani.

"We always try to be adventurous in our selections," says Hala Chahine, the director of the Beiteddine festival for four years, and a member of its organizing committee for 16. "Some of our choices are obvious. Ziad Rahbani, Pink Martini, Diana Krall, this is not hard. The Rahbani show is already sold out, and the tickets for Pink Martini and Diana Krall are moving fast. With some of the others, we have no idea how many people will attend, if people will attend. But the easy sellers will compensate for the ones we lose money on. You have to remember, we were the first festival to do open-air musicals, the first to program opera in the festival season, and we really introduced world music as a genre."

Beiteddine's risk-taking stems from its hardscrabble history, the only festival to start during, not before, the civil war. "In 1985, it was the sound of explosions not the sound of music," Chahine says. "The festival started small, and it was free, because it was only open to people who could access the Shouf at the time. We used to do the ticketing by hand. We had no one who could do sound or lighting or stage design."

As strong as Beiteddine's quarter-century mark may be, the real maverick on the festival scene is Byblos, with its striking, nine-meter-high, steel and aluminium stage and seating structure that literally rises from the sea. The festival is more than 50 years old, but it radically reinvented itself in 2003. Nagi Baz has been programming the festival for seven years now, defecting from Baalbeck to take responsibility for Byblos on his own (with a little help from his company Buzz Productions).

"I was dealing with people who had no pop vision of what a festival could be," says Baz of his experience with Baalbeck. "Byblos is more adventurous. You still have to respond to certain codes, like the VIP row and lighting historical monuments, which shows the good, touristic face of the country, but my vision goes beyond lighting historical monuments. "A programme is not a gathering of events. A program is a program, and it's a balance between a lot of weird and different things. If your program is only a gathering of events that happen to be passing by and that you could get, then it's not going to cut it. Byblos is not Baalbeck and it's not Beiteddine. It's different because it doesn't have to embarrass itself with history or prestige or nostalgia." Not buying the Mika-for-the-future argument, Baz.

"This is a music lovers festival," he adds. "It is for people who seek out and search for music, who are moved by it. The festival takes the right approach to music. It's non-snobbish and soulful." It is also the only one to put audio files in its press kit and video clips on its web site. No surprise then, that Byblos' program is by far the youngest and boldest of the big three. It opens with a tribute to Wadih al Safi, a living legend, with two stratospheric pop stars, Najwa Karam and Wael Kfoury. It closes with ambitious Italian-Lebanese production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. In between are six concert by, among others, the heroic Caetano Veloso, one of the pioneers of Tropicalismo and Brazilian bossa nova; Mashrou3 Leila, one of the most exciting and original band's to hit Lebanon's local music scene in years; and the slam-dunk, Damon Albarn's infectiously popular Gorillaz, accompanied by De La Soul, Mos Def, The Pharcyde, Bobby Womack, Mick Jones from The Clash, Mark E. Smith from The Fall, Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays, Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals and more, putting 93 people on stage at the same time, which sounds like a winner in the festival sweeps.

So does Baz harbour any fears about Lebanon's notoriously precarious political system breaking down and scuttling his festival? "Things never happen the way you figure they will," he says. "I'll be in total denial until the last day of the festival ends. You have to act like you are programming in Switzerland. If you give in to virtual fears, you'll go nowhere."