Puzzled in a magical location

Friday, 1 October was my last evening in Beirut. I was there to attend a series of workshops of the Cultural Leadership International program me, organised by the British Council); and having visited a few interesting artistic spots, a concert at the Church of St Joseph des Peres Jesuits in Ashrafieh (Monot) sounded like the perfect denouement to my short visit.

Published on 7 October 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

The church was built in the 19th century and is part of l’Université Saint- Joseph (Saint-Joseph University), a private Catholic institute of higher education founded by the Jesuits in 1875. Beirut Jesuits have been involved in education since 1839, but most of the university buildings including this church did not open until the 1870s.

Apart from its spiritual and educational activities, the church is home to the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra (LNSO), whose concerts are held there. In 1998, Walid Gholmieh, the President of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, located right next to the church, initiated efforts to establish the LNSO; by 2000 the group he formed had flourished into a fully fledged orchestra, with Gholmieh as chief conductor and artistic director. In 2009 the LNSO became the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), whose guest conductors have included Alain Paris and Ahmed El Saedi. It is also worth noting that Gholmieh is also principal conductor of the Lebanese Oriental Orchestra, which he founded in 2000. Such overwhelming achievements and responsibilities sparked my interest, and I was keen to attend a concert not only for the extraordinary location but also for Gholmieh.

When I entered the church, the majority of the audience were already seated on both sides of the central nave and towards the side aisles separated by a long colonnade; the orchestra was to be placed in the chancel area. I was especially pleased to realise this was the inauguration of the 2010/2011 season for the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra; ongoing till the end of June, it should include nearly 30 free concerts at St Joseph’s Church. The programme included the Overture to Abu Hassan by Carl Maria von Weber, the Overture to Manon Lescaut by Puccini, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 by Max Bruch and the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9.

The Overture to Abu Hassan is based on one of the better known tales from The Thousand and One Nights. The piece is characterised by its vitality, with a lovely melody moving briskly between pianissimo and forte. The energy coming from the overture was overwhelming, especially as emphasised by the surroundings. Seated at the back of the nave, I indulged in the powerful sound of the bows, waiting for the stronger woodwinds. The next overture too is a wonderful piece of music and its the opening theme on celli proved to be a soul-piercing triumph.

The last time I listened to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 was in October 2009, with Hossam Shehata as soloist, and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hisham Gabr. One year later, I looked forward to listening to the same work, played at such a wonderful location by Claude Chalhoub, the Lebanese violinist. Born and living in Lebanon, Chalhoub is a graduate of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music; he initially played Arabic music, then pursued his education further at the Royal College of Music in London. Chalhoub’s preparation for the concerto was obvious, though sometimes he was not audible enough in the midst of the resonating orchestra. Later on the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 was a pleasant reminder of that great work, but playing it alone took away from the experience, part of which depends on the emotional buildup.

St Joseph’s Church is obviously the orchestra’s regular venue, but though it adds volume to the sound its acoustics can be tricky. The orchestra provided a number of interesting musical phrasings, yet had Gholmieh maintained a clearer balance between different sections of the orchestra they would have surfaced more effectively. Many colorisations were left undeveloped, turning some fragments into a mechanical translation of notes to sound without emotional impact. In the course of one hour I was definitely moved by the surroundings and the uplifting atmosphere but I was not completely musically satisfied.

***

As I listened and contemplated the architecture, more and more questions came into my head. After the concert I had the opportunity to pose some of the them to Gholmieh, who took understandable pride in the number and variety of his audience; the church was full. “In Egypt,” he said, “you have very poor attendance.” This was based on his last visit to Cairo in the mid-2000s. Perhaps if he came back now he would feel differently. One puzzle he did not dispel was the structure of his programme, however: two overtures followed by a concerto and a symphonic fragment. “People do not like long concerts,” he explained while rushing to the side door. “We have to be brief.” My attempts to pull a word or two out of randomly chosen members of the orchestra only made them exchange looks among themselves in complete silence. Research revealed an obvious preference on the part of Gholmieh for smaller works and select symphony movements. I was glad to realise that two of the upcoming concerts of the LPO — planned for October, they are to be conducted by Jan Stvan and Yanami Sakahashi — include an interesting compilation of complete works.

Carl Maria von Weber Overture to Abu Hassan, Puccini Overture to Manon Lescaut, Max Bruch Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1, Beethoven Symphony no. 9 (2nd movement); Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, soloist: Claude Chalhoub, conductor Walid Gholmieh, St. Joseph des Peres Jesuites Church, Ashrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon; 1 October

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