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Lebanon's Baalbeck Festival moves world audience with dramatic online performance

Lebanon's beloved Baalbeck Festival has survived various challenging times, and this year was no exception.
Maestro Harout Fazlian conducts rehearsals ahead of the Sound of Resilience concert inside the Temple of Bacchus at the historic site of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, on July 4, 2020. - The Lebanese philharmonic orchestra performed to spectator-free Roman ruins in east Lebanon, after a top summer festival downsized to a single concert in a year of economic meltdown and COVID-19 pandemic. The Baalbek International Festival was instead beamed live on television and social media, in what its direc

The Baalbeck Festival has long celebrated Lebanon’s remarkable cultural depth and diversity as well as the country’s resilience.

Founded in 1956, the festival has gathered Lebanese and international audiences alike to see classical and innovative artists from Lebanon and worldwide. The festival suspended its activities from 1975 to 1996 due to the civil war, and again during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. Each time, the festival has come back stronger than ever. 

This year’s event was the perhaps most impressive response yet to challenging times. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis, on July 5th, the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra played a concert in the spectacular Bacchus Temple at Baalbeck called “The Sound of Resilience.” It featured 150 musicians from Antonine University, Notre Dame University and Qolo Atiqo as well as local Lebanese musicians playing music and symphonies from an international classical repertoire including renowned Lebanese composers.

According to Maestro Harout Fazlian, the concert's artistic director and conductor, “Culture is not a luxury but a necessity.”

"I would not call it a concert,” he added, speaking to the local TV station LBC. “I'd call it a message of solidarity and unity."

According to Nayla de Freige, the festival’s president, since it was not possible to open the festival’s doors to the public, it was decided to bring the concert into people’s homes.

The festival’s press release stated, “Artists and partners offered their services without any compensation.” Everything that was used during the concert was provided for free without any governmental sponsorship, Fazlian told Al-Monitor.

While the event featured no in-person audience because of the pandemic, it reached a worldwide viewership via Lebanese and regional television, YouTube and social media.

Those who tuned in were treated to and dazzled by a breathtaking lighting system, a massive red carpet, a spectacular setting among the Roman ruins and a playlist of traditional and modern music, a blending of east and west that has been a hallmark of Lebanese and Levantine culture.

The concert captivated the audience for a full hour. Drones captured the beauty of the timeless Roman ruins, an aspect of Lebanon that has been overlooked since the uprising took center stage in October 2019. The concert included a multimedia show and video footage of previous festivals, showcasing the famous performances and artists that have graced the historic stage.

The event lit up social media, reaching Lebanese citizens and expats around the world. Twitter exploded with appreciation from Lebanese viewers in Lebanon and abroad, lauding this cultural event untainted by the distractions and disillusions of politics with captions like “This is my Lebanon.”

Al-Monitor reached out to various expats residing and working in the United Arab Emirates, Italy, the United States and Canada. They all had in common a love for what Lebanon is capable of — clearly visible in the concert — and despair and anger over the current political and economic crises.

Following the concert, Al-Monitor chatted with Fazlian, who was blown away by the positive feedback he’s been receiving.

Seeing the raw emotions of people who have been messaging him, thanking him and his team, he said, “I thought what it would be like to perform with no audience. It’s new to us. We’re used to the physical presence of the audience. I expected to reach a good number of people," He paused. "But I was wrong. We were able to reach millions of people, if not more, to touch their hearts and move them.”

“I was using words of ‘solidarity, unity and hope’ but these are not just words. They did touch those who saw the concert. I’ve received messages of people describing it as ‘This is the Lebanon we know.’”

Fazlian compared culture in such trying times to a beating heart. 

“When someone's heart stops, they resuscitate him in the ICU with an electric shock to reset the rhythm. This is what we were trying to do. To instill a cultural shock, to hopefully restart Lebanon, because what we’ve been witnessing lately is not the Lebanon we know or want.”

Fazlian added, “This is not about Lebanon alone; it’s about the whole world crippled by divisions. Music, culture, it is a universal language. That’s why we chose to end the concert with Beethoven, whose music appeals to us all, universally, as humans under the same stars.”

The country is suffering an unprecedented economic collapse, with a soaring inflation rate. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that 48% of Lebanese citizens lived below the poverty line. Today, this number has certainly increased and things can be expected to get worse if the government doesn’t find a solution to the paralyzing financial meltdown.

“We have to restart, we have to change, we are all one. I strongly believe that,” concluded Fazlian.

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