By Timour Azhari
BEIRUT – As Lebanon’s national orchestra prepared for its season-opening concert with half its musicians absent, conductor Lubnan Baalbaki faced a dilemma – attempt a piece made for a full ensemble or prepare a smaller version.
The day of the concert, three extra 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 it was the moment when the Titanic was sinking and [the band] insisted on keeping the music playing despite everything that was happening,” Baalbaki told Reuters.
But it is not clear how much longer they will be able to keep going.
The National Symphony Orchestra has not been spared the effects of the financial crisis that has left many people in Lebanon suffering from poverty and struggling to secure basic necessities.
The crisis has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the August 2020 Beirut blast 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 watched the value of their wages tumble from $3,000 to around $200.
Most foreign musicians packed their bags and left.
“We used to do very big productions that would cover the entire classical repertoire. Now it’s very difficult,” Baalbaki said.
Wages of those who remain now cover little more than the price of fuel to drive to weekly practice sessions, forcing Baalbaki to reduce the number of concerts from dozens a year to a handful.
This mirrors 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 with the ensemble since it was re-founded in 2000 after its closure during Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, has fond memories of performing with Spanish tenor Placido Domingo at the Roman ruins in Baalbeck in the early 2000s
Now, she said she choked up when she saw an orchestra on TV.
“I hope now that things get better, and Lebanon gets back on its feet, and they [foreign musicians] come back,” she said. “We became a family.”
Even before the crisis, the conservatory had been paralyzed for nearly a decade by Lebanon’s sectarian quota-sharing system, where top posts at public institutions are distributed among politicians who generally appoint loyalists, with little regard for merit.
When conservatory head Walid Gholmieh, a Greek Orthodox Christian, died in 2011, a permanent replacement was not found for seven years. Instead, two acting heads were appointed.
The first was a bureaucrat with no musical qualifications. The second, seen as qualified for the post, was not permanently appointed because he was Catholic rather than an Orthodox Christian.
Lebanese musician Bassam Saba finally took over in 2018 after returning from the United States, but he died from complications related to COVID-19 last year. Baalbaki fears it could take years before a successor is appointed.
“We are hostages,” Baalbaki said. “The fate of art and music in Lebanon is taken hostage in this country because of the political class who insist on introducing this sectarian spirit.”
But the musicians would keep going, he said.
“We were born in this country and this is our fate, to find solutions and create new opportunities.”