Like the Titanic – Lebanon’s orchestra continues to play as the country sinks

BEIRUT, Nov 10 (Reuters) – As Lebanon’s National Orchestra prepared for its season-opening concert with half of its musicians absent, conductor Lubnan Baalbaki faced a dilemma: attempt a piece for a complete set or prepare a reduced version.

On the day of the concert, three additional musicians showed up, braving the pressures of an economic crisis that had led dozens of their colleagues to leave the band, and Baalbaki was able to conduct the original score.

“I felt like that was when the Titanic was sinking and [the band] insisted that the music keep playing despite everything that was going on,” Baalbaki told Reuters.

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But we do not know how long they will be able to continue.

The National Symphony Orchestra has not been spared the effects of the financial crisis which has left many people in Lebanon suffering from poverty and struggling to provide basic necessities.

The crisis was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the August 2020 explosion in Beirut that killed more than 215 people and damaged parts of the city – including the conservatory where the orchestra practices.

As the currency crashed, the roughly 100 musicians in the ensemble saw the value of their salaries plummet from $3,000 to around $200.

Most foreign musicians packed their bags and left.

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

The salaries of those who remain now cover little more than the price of fuel to get to weekly training sessions, forcing Baalbaki to reduce the number of concerts from dozens a year to a handful.

This reflects a wider decline in Lebanon’s cultural spaces, including summer festivals, once seen as a beacon of the arts in the region that featured jazz legends and Arab icons, due to the crisis and the pandemic.

Mona Kusta Semaan, a violinist who has been part of the ensemble since its refoundation in 2000 after its closure during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, has fond memories of playing with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo at the Roman ruins of Baalbeck. in the early 2000s

Now she says she choked 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 conservatory had been crippled for almost a decade by Lebanon’s sectarian quota-sharing system, where top positions in public institutions are divided among politicians who usually appoint loyalists, with no regard for Deserves that.

When conservatory director Walid Gholmieh, a Greek Orthodox Christian, died in 2011, no permanent replacement was found for seven years. Instead, two acting chiefs were appointed.

The first was a bureaucrat with no musical qualifications. The second, considered qualified for the post, was not appointed permanently because he was Catholic rather than Orthodox.

Lebanese musician Bassam Saba finally took over in 2018 after returning from the United States, but died last year of complications from COVID-19. Baalbaki fears it could take years before a successor is named.

“We are hostages,” Baalbaki said. “The fate of art and music in Lebanon is held hostage in this country because of the political class that insists on introducing this sectarian spirit.”

But the musicians would continue, he said.

“We were born in this country and it is our destiny, to find solutions and create new opportunities.”

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Reporting by Timour Azhari, editing by Angus MacSwan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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