Lebanon has one festival that is devoted exclusively to “classical music” –orchestral and chamber music (symphonies, oratorios, operas and such) and attendant solo work, usually drawing on the European and American canons. The event takes its name from the hotel that serves as its principal venue, Beit Mery’s Al-Bustan.
Since it was founded in 1994, with the expressed goal of reviving Lebanon’s cultural life in the wake of its long Civil War, Al-Bustan has been presided over by Myrna Bustani.
On the eve of the festival’s Tuesday evening opening, Bustani spoke to The Daily Star about her event.
Q: Every year Al-Bustan adopts a geographical theme for its international program. Where did this practice come from? Why did you decide to focus this year on Spain and Latin America?
A: For the first year, we chose the theme of Love. It was a very general theme. But then, we started specializing and this year we chose music from Latin America. There wasn’t any specific reason for this year’s choice. We have chosen different countries and different music for the festival’s 19 years of life. This year, it is Latin America because there is wonderful music there. Some people know about it, others don’t.
Q: What sorts of considerations go into deciding each year’s program? How do you decide on the number of foreign acts selected versus Lebanese performers? Do you select performers on the basis of their repertoire, reputation, or other considerations?
A: We start thinking about the theme years ahead of time [She later confided that the 2013 edition of Al-Bustan, its 20th anniversary year, will be comprised of a “best of” the previous years’ programs]. And two years [before the festival begins] we think about the musicians ... Then we start building what is in between. It is like a painting: We do the edges first – where we decide what the subject of the painting will be – and then, we fill in.
The objective of our festival is to introduce foreign musicians to Lebanon, and to introduce Lebanon to foreign musicians. It is not a local program. This is the vocation we have declared since the very beginning. We make a choice of musicians and music and we bring them to Lebanon.
Usually, the performers are recommended by someone we know very well. And sometimes I have listened to them or heard about them. And many times we invite again the musicians we know. They become [festival] regulars.
Q: Al-Bustan was founded out of a wish “to revive the cultural life of a country reemerging after 17 years of war.” In the past you’ve also remarked that Al-Bustan sees itself as educating Lebanese audiences’ cultural palate. Since the festival was founded in 1994, what sort of changes have you noticed in Al-Bustan’s audiences – in terms of their tastes and sophistication in appreciating “classical” music?
A: The number of people has increased and they are much more interested in what we do. Our auditorium has 450 seats only, it is a very intimate festival. So when there is an orchestra, it is a luxury to have this kind of music and these musicians in such a small space. Year after year, the audience follows what we are doing.
Some people didn’t like classical music before. It made them sleepy, [depressed] or maybe they didn’t feel well listening to it. [She laughs] Now, they trust the choices we make. They want to spend a pleasant evening and don’t want to suffer. So, we try our best.
Q: What do you think is the state of classical music composition in Lebanon [and by Lebanese composers living overseas] nowadays? What do you think is the state of classical music appreciation in Lebanon?
A: It has improved a lot. We have a very good philharmonic orchestra. We have more and more classical music in Lebanon. Classical music is sometimes more entertaining than noise. I love popular music, but it has to be good, just like classical music. A performer should be good, the musical program of the concert should be good as well. There are a lot of factors.
It is nice to hear people discussing the performances when they get out of the auditorium.
Q: How has classical music in Lebanon been affected by the death of Walid Gholmiyyeh last year?
A: It is very sad. But I don’t think classical music was affected by Walid Gholmiyyeh’s disappearance. On the contrary, I think it gives people the awareness of what he has done for music in general. Not only classical music. He has done a lot to improve the attendance and the performances and to motivate people. He was a fantastic person. People realize his loss is a real loss to music. But they will make twice as much effort now.
Q: What makes you feel enthusiastic about the future of the classical music scene in Lebanon?
A: For instance, the orchestra definitely lifts you up. And we will probably have more and more orchestras as time goes on. People have realized the importance of an orchestra for a city or a country.
Classical music in Europe is declining. But in China and Japan it is in the ascent. Just like paintings or sculptures, music goes through phases as well. People feel better after listening to classical pieces. It is similar to therapy. The more they feel it, the more they will attend.
We are now in a world of CDs and DVDs but there’s nothing like live music. No surround system can give the effect of live sound. There is a kind of communion among people who attend the same concert. They share opinions of what they have heard. It is like very good food.
Festival Al-Bustan commences Tuesday evening with the first of two performances of “Flamenco Without Borders,” featuring Spain’s Paco Pena Dance Company. For more information please see www.albustanfestival.com.