Naji Hakim, virtuoso, returns to Beirut roots
Beirut - Naji Hakim was just 5 years old when, at 7.30am mass at a church in Gemaizeh, east Beirut, he first heard the organ. Transfixed, he had to wait until the service ended to find out what produced those “beautiful sounds”.
Returning from France 55 years later for concerts February 6th and 7th in his native city, Hakim gave rich glimpses not just of his astonishing playing but of a range of composition that has stretched beyond the organ into symphonic and chamber music as well as choral works.
“I like to write for the orchestra and for different instruments,” Hakim said. “It’s a different joy to writing for the organ.”
At Sacred Heart Church in Gemaizeh, where he first heard the organ, Hakim played Bach and Cesar Franck. In the National Evangelical Church in downtown Beirut he joined musicians from the Lebanese Conservatory in new pieces for organ, clarinet, violin, horn and oboe.
Hakim offers an uncommon mix of joy and virtuosity. Both his playing and composition are rich in drama. A reviewer for the Scotsman newspaper found himself “open-mouthed” on hearing Hakim’s 2011 recording Set Me as a Seal Upon Your Heart, featuring organ, voice and chamber musicians.
Gramophone magazine, reviewing his 2014 recording of his own compositions on the Schuke organ of the Palacio Euskalduna in Bilbao, noted: “If the intention is to deliver the joy inherent in this music, he succeeds brilliantly.”
But Hakim offers other rare mixes, too. While organ music is primarily religious and Hakim has enjoyed a distinguished career as a church organist in Paris, he rejects any “secular” divide in music.
“For me everything is religious,” he said. “Even the work not based on liturgical melody [used in the ceremony of mass] is religious. As Psalm 150 says: ‘All that breathes should worship the Lord’. The church is not just a building, it’s all the Earth. All the Earth is a big church.”
Likewise, Hakim has never accepted a divide between Western and “Oriental” music. His mass for soprano solo, premiered in 1994 with the Swede Dominique Hellsten, was inspired by oriental scales and his work for solo organ, Rubaiyat, drew from the poems of Omar Khayyam.
In 2015, Lebanon’s Baalbeck Festival commissioned an orchestral work envisaged as a “danced poem” drawing from the dabke and featuring darbuka, daf and riq, as well as woodwind instruments evoking the mejwez, the double-piped flute that often accompanies the dabke.
Hakim dedicated the piece to his son, Jean-Paul, who was born in France but inspired by the dabke after watching examples on the internet. “He was not only able to dance it but to teach it to the whole family,” said Hakim.
Jean-Paul Hakim is studying French and Spanish law at Nanterre University but also holds a Grade 7 in piano at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London, and is, said his father, “a gifted improviser with substantial potential as a composer”.
Although he left Lebanon at the age of 20, Hakim’s origins run far beyond the folkloric themes found in Baalbeck. “There are many eastern roots [in my music], many oriental features,” he said. “Dancing and rhythmic features are important, and these complement melodically.” Throughout Hakim’s compositions are strong rhythms — and the percussive element is unmistakable when he plays the organ.
As, too, is his sense of beauty. Hakim cites the 19th-century French composer Charles Gounod — “the melody, always the melody, that’s the very secret of our art”.
Hakim’s accolades are many. He has won ten first prizes at international organ and composition competitions. The compliment he treasures most, however, came from Olivier Messiaen, alongside Debussy the towering French composer of the 20th century, who said just months before his death that he had never heard anyone improvise as well as Hakim.
Improvising is common for organists in church ceremonies in France, and it was fitting that Hakim succeeded Messiaen as organist at the Church of the Trinity in 1993, a post he held for 15 years.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI honoured his work for the Roman Catholic Church and the call Hakim heard as a child remains strong.
“It’s a difficult time for Christianity, not only in the Middle East,” he said. “All over the world there’s an evil spirit working against whatever is religious and, in particular, what is Christian and what is Catholic. It appears in different ways — in education programmes in schools, and in the way adults speak about religion. Christian people are less proud to proclaim their faith.
“The mass media are developing a hedonistic way of life, [influencing people] not to think about spirituality, about effort, about others, about sacrifice. The future is in the hands of God and the goodwill of each of us.”