A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

making music in the arab world: the National Symphony Orchestra of Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 21, 2007

On Friday night, when the weather was still seasonable, I persuaded a very amenable acquaintance to break the usual resto-bar-nightclub pattern and instead start the evening with a concert performance by Lebanon’s National Symphony Orchestra.


The program was a delightful selection of pieces loosely grouped around a dancing theme: the first suite from Carmen, several waltzes, a Dvorak trio of Slavonic dances (which was a bit shrill for my pedestrian ears, though my companion – as well as the rest of the audience – all seemed much more receptive), and a lithely rendered Brahms Hungarian dance. The concert ended with the Radetzky March, which by ear if not by name is familiar to many – and perfectly suited to the enthusiastic crowd, many of whom I noticed “air conducting” during the earlier pieces. We clapped passionately when instructed, and the concert ended on a warm, passionate note.

The Orchestre plays twice monthly, gratis and with no advanced ticketing or reservations required. (The Syrian National Symphony’s concerts are also free, although it performs on a less regular schedule.) I love that their concerts are free and open to the public – what a sweet reminder that “national” institutions are meant to serve the nation’s citizens.

What I do not love is the venue. The National Symphony Orchestra’s concerts are always held at the same location: St. Joseph’s Church in Achrafiyeh, part of St. Joseph University. The location is not even listed on the program – after all, why specify a location when the venue never changes?



(The Arabic text announces the concert dates for the National Orchestra of Lebanon for “Eastern” – i.e., Arabic – music, which is why the performance dates do not match.)

A National Symphony Orchestra that plays exclusively in the city’s most aggressively Christian neighborhood is not reaching out to all the nation’s citizens. In a city like Beirut, the Symphony Orchestra should perform in an array of venues and a variety of locations.

I understand the impossibility of asking a local mosque to host a music concert, and the discomfort that some strict-constructionist Muslims might have with music in general (though these are few and very much the exception in Lebanon). However, there are many churches in Muslim areas large enough to host an orchestra – the Capuchin on Hamra, for example – and equally numerous theatres and other non-sectarian-and-generously-sized spaces that could be temporarily fitted for a LNSO performance.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way; and where there is no will, the way is ignored.

(Thanks to Ali Jihad Racy for authoring the book whose title I am borrowing for the title of this post. Racy is a scholar and musician, beautifully combining, theory, practice, and reflection.)


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