BEIT MERY, Lebanon: Nineteen youngsters of various ages marched down the aisles and onto the stage of the Emile Bustani Auditorium Tuesday evening, taking up position before the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, already arrayed before the audience.
Appreciative murmurs emerged from the terraces at the sight of the kids, presumably on hand to lead the hall in belting out Lebanon’s national anthem with the LPO players. They did too -- though the lyrics were not sung but signed. After a second or two of silence, several onlookers threw their voices into the fray, two verses of Rashid Nakhla’s patriotic hymn.
Tune done, many audience members stood to applaud the youngsters.
“Thawra, thawra, thawra,” one gentleman blinked as the kids retreated back up the auditorium aisles -- perhaps referring to the revolutionary departure from the evening’s set program.
The 27th edition of Al Bustan Festival commenced in earnest with a pair of familiar works by Beethoven. Under the baton of Al Bustan’s music director Gianluca Marciano, the LPO opened with the Fifth Symphony. After the interval, the players returned to accompany soloist Gloria Campaner’s soulful interpretation of Beethoven’s other Fifth, the Piano Concerto known as The Emperor.
Composed sometime in the early 19th century (documentation suggests 1804-08), Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, is still recognized by a remarkable number of casual listeners, thanks to the four-note motif (G, G, G, E-flat) to which the first movement repeatedly returns.
In its two-odd centuries of existence the Fifth Symphony has been variously interpreted -- from the sculptural and stately to sprightly readings. Marciano leans toward a more light-handed approach. Such an up-tempo interpretation suits the conductor’s own animated yet precise stage persona, though brisk treatments of the baroque and classical canons have been common in contemporary performance since the 1990s.
The highlight of this first set may have been the LPO’s rendering of the symphony’s fourth movement. It begins as a march and, as its themes are handed from one cluster of instruments to another, it retains a peripatetic nature -- sometimes accelerating into a trot, sidling into a momentary bit of string-section pizzicato before breaking into a sprint.
It was impossible to be immersed in an evening of Beethoven a-la Bustan without feeling the incongruity of it.
Since mid-October this country has been preoccupied with overlapping financial, economic and political crises and the popular civil disobedience campaign they provoked. With the economy in the throes of meltdown, and all but the most-wealthy and best-connected confronted with the evaporation of life savings, significant segments of the population have fled or will flee. Businesses are shuttering and the once-vibrant cultural sector faces existential threat.
Al Bustan has responded by devoting some pages of its festival program to a number of non-profit organisations that have helped sustain civil society in a country not renowned for its stability. For its 27th, all-Beethoven edition, the administration is charging a flat rate of LL30,000 for admission to its shows – complemented by a number of fundraising concerts to help sustain its own operations.
The gesture seems to have worked for the opening concert, with no empty seats visible from the zone reserved for ladies and gentlemen of the press. During the interval -- when The Daily Star has historically reconvened to Al Bustan’s Scotch Bar for a quiet (though nowadays quite extravagant) glass of something Irish, to gaze down upon the snarl of discarded Christmas tree lights that is Beirut – this journalist glanced up from the lone ice cube to find the familiar, smiling face of a gent recently in the news and on billboards after falling out with a Franco-Japanese car manufacturer.
We are all incongruous, perhaps.
In retrospect, Maestro Marciano’s vigorous interpretation of the Fifth Symphony gave his players a chance to warm up without taking too much of the spotlight from Gloria Campaner, the evening’s soloist. In any case, the tempo with which Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major was performed was markedly more careful, even affectionate.
After the interval, the virtuoso pianist drifted on stage in a flowing white gown and, as Marciano struck up the orchestra, she laid down the piece’s opening flourish of notes with casual panache.
Like the Fifth Symphony, the Piano Concerto No. 5 is a crowd-pleaser, adorned with themes that have since been appropriated by film scores and other pop culture detritus. The soloist’s relaxed posture as she addressed the keyboard was belied by the intense, ever-shifting expressions that moved across her face as she interpreted the music.
Campaner’s performance was charming and memorable, ideal for the opening concert of the 2020 edition of Al Bustan. The Beit Mery audience was thoroughly won over, demanding that Campaner return for an encore.
She did, performing a solo miniature that is, if anything, even more recognizable than the themes in the preceding symphony and concerto -- “Fur Elise.”
In response to the audience’s sighs, she glanced up to mouth, “It’s Beethoven!”