Lebanon’s orchestra continues to play as the country sinks into crisis

The National Symphony Orchestra of Lebanon is feeling the effects of the financial crisis in the country. The crisis has left many people in Lebanon suffering from poverty and struggling to meet simple needs.

The crisis has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The August 2020 explosion in Beirut also aggravated the crisis. The explosion killed more than 215 people and damaged parts of the city, including the building where the orchestra meets.

As the value of Lebanese money declined, the roughly 100 musicians in the orchestra saw the value of their salaries drop from $3,000 to around $200.

Most foreign musicians have left the orchestra and the country.

It is not known how long the orchestra can continue.

cultural loss

Lubnan Baalbaki is the conductor, someone who directs the musicians as they play.

“We used to do very big productions that covered everything classical repertoire. Now it’s very difficult,” Baalbaki said.

Conductor Lubnan Baalbaki stands pictured in Beirut, Lebanon November 4, 2021. The reduced salary musicians receive has forced Baalbaki to reduce the number of shows from around 30 a year to just a few. (REUTERS/Emilie Madi)

The salary of those who remain now covers a little more than the price of fuel to travel each week practices. This forced Baalbaki to reduce the number of shows from around 30 per year to just a few.

This follows a wider loss of Lebanon’s place and cultural activities due to the crisis and the pandemic. One of these losses concerns the cultural events of the summer holidays. They were considered a beacon of the arts in the region. They included famous musicians and Arabs celebrities.

Mona Kusta Semaan is a musician who has been part of the orchestra since its refoundation in 2000 after its closure during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. She has warm memories of playing with Spanish singer Placido Domingo on the Roman ruins of Baalbeck, Lebanon, in the early 2000s.

A musician from the National Orchestra of Lebanon performs during a practice in Beirut, Lebanon, November 2, 2021. (Reuters/Emilie Madi)

A musician from the National Orchestra of Lebanon performs during a practice in Beirut, Lebanon, November 2, 2021. (Reuters/Emilie Madi)

Now she said she got emotional when she saw an orchestra on TV.

“I hope now that things get better and that Lebanon gets back on its feet, and that they [foreign musicians] come back,” she said. “We have become a family.


Even before the crisis, the orchestra had been almost destroyed for 10 years by Lebanon sectarian appointment sharing system. In Lebanon, management positions in public establishments are entrusted to politicians who generally appoint loyalists, without worrying about skills.

When conductor Walid Gholmieh, a Greek Orthodox Christian, died in 2011, a permanent conductor was not found for seven years. Instead, two acting chiefs were appointed.

The first was a government official with no professional musical skills. The second had the jurisdiction, but was not appointed permanently because he was a Catholic rather than an Orthodox Christian.

Lebanese musician Bassam Saba finally took over in 2018 after returning from the United States. But he died of COVID-19 related issues last year. Baalbaki fears it could be years before another leader is appointed.

“We are hostages,” Baalbaki said. “The spell of art and music in Lebanon is being held hostage in this country because of the political class…” which, he added, demands the maintenance of the sectarian system.

He said the musicians would continue.

He said: “We were born in this country and it is our destiny, to find solutions…” and to create new possibilities.

I am Gregory Stachel.

Timour Azhari reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


words in this story

orchestra – nm a group of musicians who usually play classical music together and are led by a conductor

classic adj. relating to music in a European tradition that includes opera and symphony and is generally considered more serious than other genres of music

directory nm all plays, songs or dances that a performer or group of performers know and can perform

practice v. do something again and again to become better

celebrity nm a celebrity

sectarian adj. relating to religious or political sects and the differences between them

spell nm things that will happen to a person or thing: the future that someone or something will have

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