BEIRUT (Reuters) – As Lebanon’s National Orchestra prepared for its season opening concert with half of its musicians absent, conductor Lubnan Baalbaki faced a dilemma: attempting a piece for an ensemble full or prepare a smaller version.
On the day of the concert, three more musicians showed up, braving the pressures of an economic crisis that had led dozens of their colleagues to quit the band, and Baalbaki was able to conduct the original score.
“I felt like this was the time when the Titanic was sinking and [the band] insisted that the music keep playing despite everything that was going on, “Baalbaki told Reuters.
But we do not know how long they will be able to continue.
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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 performs.
As the currency crumbled, the roughly 100 musicians in the ensemble saw the value of their salaries drop from $ 3,000 to around $ 200.
Most of the foreign musicians packed their bags and left.
“We were doing some really big productions that covered the whole classical repertoire. Now it’s very difficult,” Baalbaki said.
The salaries of those who remain now cover little more than the cost of fuel to get to the weekly training sessions, forcing Baalbaki to reduce the number of concerts from dozens per year to a handful.
This reflects a wider decline of Lebanon’s cultural spaces, including summer festivals, once considered a beacon of the arts in the region that featured jazz legends and Arab icons, due to the crisis and pandemic. .
Mona Kusta Semaan, a violinist who has been part of the ensemble since its refoundation in 2000 after it closed during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90, has fond memories of playing with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo in the Roman ruins of Baalbeck in the early 2000s
Now she said she choked when she saw an orchestra on TV.
“I hope now that things will improve and Lebanon will get back on its feet, and they [foreign musicians] come back, “she said.” We have become a family.
Even before the crisis, the conservatory had been crippled for nearly a decade by Lebanon’s sectarian quota-sharing system, where the highest positions in public institutions are distributed among politicians who usually appoint loyalists, with little of consideration for merit.
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 definitively because he was Catholic rather than Orthodox.
Lebanese musician Bassam Saba finally took over in 2018 after returning from the United States, but died of complications from COVID-19 last year. Baalbaki fears it will be 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 who insist 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.”
(Report by Timour Azhari, edited by Angus MacSwan)
Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.