Remembering Walid Gholmieh and ‘the geography of music’
London - Sixteen years ago this month, on September 15th, 1999, the Byblos festival hosted the first concert of the Lebanese National Orchestra. It was a string ensemble of 45 that evening, but within five months it was a full orchestra of 79 musicians, including woodwind, brass and percussion.
The creativity and sweat of many went into the Lebanese National Orchestra (LNO), but the driving force was Walid Gholmieh, a towering figure in modern Lebanon. Gholmieh died in June 2011, but his influence continues in the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, as the orchestra was renamed in 2009, and in the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music.
Gholmieh saw regeneration from Lebanon’s civil war of 1975-90 as a cultural or even spiritual challenge rather than just a physical one. Allied to daunting energy and resilience was his belief in discipline, organisation and punctuality.
When Gholmieh took over the conservatory in 1991, it was a burned-out shell whose destruction was encapsulated in trumpeter Nassim Maalouf’s recollection of militiamen tossing a piano from a fourth-floor window. Within a few years, Gholmieh fashioned an institution with nearly 5,000 students and more than 250 professors.
Running the conservatory gave Gholmieh less time for composing. He wrote five symphonies between 1977 and 1984, calling the fourth The Martyr in honour of “anyone who dedicates their life to a cause”. But symphonies were only part of an output that included music for theatre and cinema.
Born in 1938 in Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, Gholmieh showed aptitude for music through high school in Sidon, the British Mission School in Beirut and the conservatory. He studied violin, mandolin, piano, oboe, timpani and oud, but became absorbed by composition and research. In the late 1950s, Gholmieh worked briefly for Pan American World Airways as a flight planner.
But he had already conducted at the Baalbeck and Ehden festivals and at the Tehran Opera House before he went to study conducting and composition at Wichita State University (WSU) in the United States. He earned a doctorate at the University of Kansas, tracing the music of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to its roots in Sumer, Ur and Babylon. “I presented scores, not a written thesis,” he told me in 1999. “I looked at ways of writing oriental music for orchestra.”
Gholmieh returned to Lebanon in 1974, but was also a visiting professor at WSU from 1975-88, coming and going to the United States during the war years.
Gholmieh believed musicians in Lebanon had a rich mix from which to draw.
At the conservatory, he developed programmes exposing students to different traditions. He believed Mozart could be played on the oud; he appointed the American bassist Jack Gregg to teach jazz and drafted him into the orchestra.
Gholmieh recruited musicians for the LNO from Eastern Europe, including the Pole Wojciech Czepiel as its first musical director. At rehearsal, words flew in Arabic, English, Armenian, Polish, Romanian and Czech — as well as musical instructions in Italian.
One important recruit was Harout Fazlian, a Lebanese-Armenian in his early 30s whom Gholmieh appointed to teach after seeing a video of him conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Yerevan, Armenia. Fazlian would succeed Gholmieh as principal conductor of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.
With Arabic music, Gholmieh felt that the renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had faltered because it never developed the rigour of Western classical music. Gholmieh insisted improvisation was a step towards composition rather than something to be valued in itself.
When he launched the Lebanese Arabic-Oriental Orchestra in 2000, Gholmieh arranged pieces by Abdel Wahab, Jamil Bek and others for a 26-strong ensemble including ouds, nay, duff, tabla, bass, cello and qanun. “For too long, Arabic- Oriental music has been a background for a singer or even a belly dancer,” he explained. “Having an orchestra will help us turn improvisation into concrete composition.”
Gholmieh’s knowledge of what he called the “geography of music” was encyclopedic.
He said the special character of Arabic music — as of any music — lay in the structure of the melodies. “Arabic music is not specified by quarter tone,” he told me. “It’s specified by the succession of the musical intervals (the difference in pitch between notes on a scale) — as is Latin American music, Russian music or African music.” To illustrate this he could sing a few measures of, say, Russian music to show its recognisable flavour. But while opening musicians to difference, he could be startlingly specific and his own compositions were deeply Arabic.
The last time I spoke to Walid was February 23, 2010, just after a conservatory performance of the Beethoven Octet in Beirut at the St Joseph University Damascus Road. I glimpsed him in the car park and on a sudden impulse had our car stop while I went over to express my appreciation for everything he had achieved. He was surprised but touched. “Bless you,” he smiled. In a little over a year, he was gone.