Lebanon’s Al Bustan festival launches 25th edition with sense of ‘mission accomplished’

Visiting musicians have been encouraged to give master classes.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Popular touch. Members of Britain’s vocal group Swingle Singers perform at the 25th Al Bustan Festival, on February 13. 			             (Carl Halal)
Popular touch. Members of Britain’s vocal group Swingle Singers perform at the 25th Al Bustan Festival, on February 13. (Carl Halal)

BEYT MERY, Lebanon - The 25th Al Bustan Festival has opened in Beit Mery, Lebanon, its longevity a tribute to the energy of its originator and president, Myrna Bustani, and its emphasis on Johann Sebastian Bach, a tribute to one of the pioneers of European classical music.

“The festival has achieved its mission, that classical music has become widely spread [in Lebanon],” Bustani said. “When I go back and think about the achievements of the festival, I realise we have invited 155 pianists, 61 violinists, 59 conductors, 57 choirs, 38 sopranos, 34 symphony orchestras, 34 choirmasters, 32 cellists, 29 tenors, 23 opera companies and more.”

Bustani became the first woman to enter the Lebanese parliament in 1963. She won the seat previously held by her father, who died in a plane crash in the Mediterranean off Beirut in a heavy storm. Bustani, who had two small children, quickly determined she had no desire for a political life and stepped down after a year.

With the outbreak of war in 1975, Bustani looked to the arts to overcome divisions and heal wounds. She organised exhibitions of Lebanese art in London.

“We were thinking of the Lebanese community in London and were ashamed of everything that was happening at home,” she told me in an interview in 1997. “The artists were the ones who kept the country going. The art spoke for itself, without words. We were fed up with words. We were proud of our painters, of our musicians, of our singers.”

Bustani began Al Bustan Festival in 1994. She was able to use the family hotel for which her mother had assigned her responsibility in 1970 “for three months” until a manager could be found. With the warm acoustics of the 450-seat Emile Bustani Auditorium at the festival’s core, the hotel offers views of Lebanon’s coastline as well as ample spaces for artists and guests to relax and mix. Beirut is a 45-minute car journey.

Over the years, the festival introduced aspiring musicians to Lebanese audiences. Some have become regulars. Pianist Boris Berezovsky made his Bustan debut in 1996 at age 27. He returned for seven further recitals in a dazzling career, including recordings with some of the world’s leading orchestras. Gramophone magazine has called Berezovsky “the truest successor to the great Russian pianists.”

Bustan has not been just about showcasing international talent. Visiting musicians have been encouraged to give master classes and the festival has valued its links with Lebanese musicians and musical institutions. In 2000, Bustan hosted an early concert of the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra, then an enhanced string ensemble but on the verge of becoming the country’s first symphony orchestra.

The orchestra’s founder and musical director, the late Walid Gholmieh, was Al Bustan Festival’s vice-president. He took the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra and the Lebanese National Arabic Oriental Orchestra, which he also founded, to Bustan on several occasions.

Since 1994, Bustan has cancelled a concert only once, on February 14, 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others were killed by a massive bomb near the Beirut seafront. Yet the next day, an Estonian choir performed in a tribute to the victims.

For this year’s 25th anniversary festival, Bustani and musical director Gianluca Marciano have scheduled 25 live performances either entirely or largely of Bach. Proceedings began February 13 with the popular touch of Britain’s Swingle Singers. The a cappella group’s origins under Ward Swingle go back to storming the 1960s pop charts with the record “Jazz Sebastian Bach.”

The Swingle Singers’ Bustan concert featured not just a vocal version of “Air on the G String,” perhaps Bach’s most famous melody, but arrangements of Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles and an Afghan folk tune.

German pianist Martin Stadtfeld is to play Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” supposedly written to soothe the insomnia of the Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony. Cellist Antonio Meneses is scheduled to play the even-numbered Bach suites for solo cello and Victor Julien-Laferriere, the odd-numbered suites, works that fell into obscurity until revived in the 1930s by the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals.

The festival is also showcasing many of Lebanon’s churches for Bach’s choral masterpieces. St Joseph Jesuit Church is to be the site of the “Mass in B minor,” featuring rising Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn with the Corelli Baroque Orchestra. St Elie Church, Kantari, hosts the Corelli in Bach’s “St John Passion” and Mar Charbel Church in Corniche Mazraa will be the location for the Accademia Bizantina Baroque orchestra performing Bach harpsichord concertos.

The Bustan Festival runs through March 21. For more information the festival website address is: www.albustanfestival.com.