A spot of Beirutification

Despite the threat from air-raids and fundamentalism, a music festival flourishes. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
Beirut is not the most obvious venue for a classical music festival, so it's a surprise to find musicians from all over Europe congregating there each spring. Evelyn Glennie beats up her customary storm, Nikolai Demidenko works his Russian magic; Philip Fowke and Patricia Rozario are among other London stalwarts who have gone out to do their bit at the Al Bustan Hotel.

But the place leaves its unmistakable stamp on all who perform there: Moscow-based Helikon Opera's Die Fledermaus, which was performed to acclaim last week, is a perfect case in point. Director Dmitriy Bertman's approach to this classic of Viennese operetta was unorthodox in any case, with a trio of circus clowns intermittently taking over the stage, and at one point roping in the audience for a participatory session that owed more to boogie than to Johann Strauss. The positioning of the band at the back of the stage - and behind the singers - may have been due to the absence of a pit, but it added to the general sense of convention being stood on its head.

The sung text was dizzyingly polyglot, switching constantly between Russian, German and English; Beirutification manifested itself through a medley of hints and nudges. The jailer Frosch extolled the virtues of arak; Allah was periodically invoked. At one point, a clown proffered a pistol to a Lebanese grandee sitting in the front-row: the way the grandee corrected the clown's method of handling it betrayed an easy familiarity with such implements. This, after all, is a place where every second citizen has a gun. But through it all, the work's convivial brilliance came across delightfully: Bertman has a rare gift for animating large groups on stage, and his talented young company includes several singers with superstar potential.

These Russian performers were not there just because they were cheap: the Russian connection has deep roots in Beirut. Any middle-class Beiruti who grew up between 1930 and 1960 will have had Russian music and art teachers: the Conservatoire had many Russians on its staff, with Armenians also prominent. And it was a Lebanese pianist of Armenian extraction who provided the other big thrill of the festival's final week.

If Gabriel Yared - Oscar-winning composer of the score for The English Patient - is Beirut's hero of the moment, Avo Kuyumjian has been a source of civic pride ever since he won the Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna in 1981. The relationship has not run smooth: badly beaten by militiamen, and with his brother seriously wounded, he at one stage vowed never to return to Beirut. But the place drew him irresistibly back and, last week, he coupled his Al Bustan recital with a master-class at the Conservatoire, where scores of young hopefuls - most too nervous to play for him - clustered round to see how Bach's Chromatic Fantasia should be done.

Myrna Bustani, founder of the festival, has a long-term dream: to pave the way for a re-opened Baalbek Festival. Her achievement so far has been extraordinary: it has taken considerable powers of persuasion to entice top-flight performers to visit her hotel in Beirut while the Israelis still make intermittent raids, and every journey is punctuated by road- blocks manned by the Syrian and Lebanese armies, and even by Hezbollah. The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism told me last week that they are planning a concert in the Roman temples of Baalbek this autumn. Will Hezbollah allow that festival to flourish again? That is a question to which nobody, at present, knows the answer.

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