Lebanese composer finalist in prestigious UK
contemporary music competition
But Khoury’s work has yet to be
performed in his country of birth
Ramsay Short, The Daily Star (Lebanon)
15 October, 2003
In the realm of contemporary
classical music there has long been a myth that no composer can expect
to be appreciated in his lifetime, and that in order to gain acclaim
one has to be dead. It is a myth almost of the composers’ own making
because many of them today refuse to engage in dialogue with audiences.
In Lebanon it is also the case
that a musician or composer of any genre needs to make it big abroad
before he can be recognized at home excepting our own pop chicks
and chicos like Haifa Wehbe and Amr Diab. This is a myth of Lebanon’s
own making, which unfortunately holds some truth.
Bechara el-Khoury has had to
face both these issues, a composer who has been toiling for recognition
for many years in Europe with some success and who in Lebanon is barely
known even amongst classical music lovers despite being appointed in
2002 Knight of the National Order of the Cedar of Lebanon. His work is
not performed at the increasingly prestigious Lebanese National
Conservatory of Music and his four or five published compact discs are
hard to find in local music stores.
But all that is set to change.
Khoury has been chosen as one of the six finalists for the most
prestigious triennial award in contemporary classical music, the 2003
Masterprize, which will culminate at London’s Barbican Center on Oct.
30, 2003. There the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) will perform the
six finalist pieces under conductor Daniel Harding and the winner will
be selected from a combination of jury votes, worldwide public votes,
LSO votes and audience votes. Khoury and his fellow nominees
Frenchman Nicolas Bacri, American Robert Henderson, Latvian Arturs
Maskas, German Anton Plate and American Christopher Theofanidis
were chosen from over 1,000 entries from 65 countries by an
international panel of 25 well-known conductors, producers, musicians
and orchestral managers.
At 46 years old this is some
achievement for the composer who has lived in self-imposed exile in
France since 1979 and has now become a French citizen. In a recent
interview with The Daily Star by telephone from his home in Paris,
Khoury is clearly excited. He has much reason to be pleased. With a
prize of 25,000 pounds sterling (almost $40,000) on offer, and
international acclaim, he has also had his chosen piece aired on
numerous radio stations in Europe and the US, and had it performed in
the Masterprize’s traveling road shows around the UK.
“It is without question an
incredible honor for me,” Khoury says.
His nominated composition, Les
Fleuves Engloutis (Eternal Rivers) in five movements Brouillard
(Fog), Chant du Silence (Song of Silence), Alerte (Alert), Lutte
(Struggle), Chant des Fleuves (Song of the Rivers) is a stirring
piece of elemental orchestral passion and is striking for its somber
and reflective qualities. It is fair to say that he has a very strong
chance of winning.
is universal; the language of hope, and the advantage in music is that
there are no words. Music can create a different feeling in each
Connected by family with the
musical Rahbani clan, Khoury was born in March 1957 in Beirut and
though he made his artistic debut early on it was not until 1969 that
he started serious music studies in the capital under the direction of
Agop Arslanian. Since then he has devoted himself to composing for
piano, choir and orchestra.
“I started learning piano at a
young age. Suddenly without knowing why, something grabbed me with
classical music, without knowing the cause,” he recalls. “I was
inspired by the loneliness. I like to be alone, and the deeper,
conspiratorial ideas of music lead you to be alone.”
Between 1973 and 1976, he was
Kapellmeister at the Church of Saint Elias in Antelias but left for
Paris in 1979 to study music further. He took advanced lessons in
composition with Pierre Petit and since 1980 has been a jury member for
exams at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Musique in Paris. The year
2000 saw Khoury receive the Prix Rossini of the Academie des Beaux-Arts
(Institut de France). Khoury’s catalogue includes some 70 works that
have been performed in various venues such as the Theatre des
Champs-Elysees, Salle Pleyel, Theatre du Chatelet, Radio France, Salle
Cortot, Kiev Philharmonia, Cairo Opera House, and many more by
orchestras such as the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow
Philharmonic, the Ukraine National Symphony, the Orchestre Symphonique
Francais, and the Orchestre Colonne (Paris).
His symphonic music was first recorded by Erato in 1983 and by Forlane
in 1996. In 2002, Naxos released a CD entirely devoted to his symphonic
music with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Vladimir Sirenko. Earlier this year Gramophone, a leading classical
music magazine, called Khoury: “A powerfully committed new voice, this
is a composer to be reckoned with.”
“I definitely feel I am an
ambassador of Lebanon through my music,” Khoury explains but wishes his
music would be performed more here. “Classical music is weak in
Lebanon,” he argues though this is not necessarily true.
The National Conservatory under
the direction of composer and conductor Walid Gholmieh has progressed
in leaps and bounds since the end of the war, although in terms of
really fostering local talent above foreign musicians who come to
play primarily from Eastern European countries it still has a
long way to go. The Lebanese National Opera under the direction
of Wayne Khalil and Australian worldwide opera diva Penny Pavlakis is
doing wonders for opera in the country. Even young classical musicians,
like fusionist pianist Rami Khalife, are gradually receiving some
During a telephone interview on
Monday, in between rehearsals for his National Symphony Orchestra’s
concert next week, Gholmieh had nothing but praise for his compatriot
“It’s very good, and I hope he
will succeed. Here at the conservatory I spread the Masterprize website
address so everyone can vote trying to back him. He’s a good composer,
and a friend, and he’s living in a profound tradition regarding
classical music as far as is concerned in Europe,” Gholmieh said.
But why has the Conservatory not
yet performed Khoury’s compositions?
“We do not play his
compositions, because we have never received any of them (the sheet
music) but once Bechara sends compositions and partitions I would love
to play his work,” argues Gholmieh.
“We are programming local
composers into our concerts - we have just conducted a symphony
from Gabriel Saab and I would love to play his work. I hope he
can send some to us.”
For now Khoury has no doubt more
pressing matters on his mind with the competition final coming up at
the end of the month though one gets the sense that he is sometimes
tired of Lebanon’s very intertwined society where politics and art can
sometimes inevitably mix.
“All kinds of arts especially
the music must be separated from politics. Music is universal; the
language of hope, and the advantage in (classical) music is that there
are no words. Music can create a different feeling in each listener,”
Khoury says. The Masterprize is a crowning moment for Khoury and he
considers it “an original and important way of creating a bond between
a composer and the public,” certainly almost forcing classical music
into an open dialogue with a wide public audience instead of confining
it to the realms of the classical elite.
Indeed Masterprize aims to
encourage classical music enthusiasts to listen more to new music and
to help living composers find a large international audience.
Mariss Jansons, an artistic advisor to the competition, argues that,
“It is vital that living composers and music lovers grow closer, and
everyone in the music world should encourage this. That is why
Masterprize is such an important world-wide initiative.”
John McLaren, who established
the contest in 1996, said in a recent interview with Gramophone
“Masterprize is trying to send a signal to composers that it is
possible to write for a broad international audience, without dumbing
down or in any way compromising artistically. To try to persuade them
that it’s good to have an audience and that the audience reaction is a
That is something that Khoury is
happy to be part of since though as a composer he finds he spends a lot
of time on his own, the “poetical and philosophical themes which
inspire my music are universal.”
“(Music) is the way I express
myself, it is me, I can’t live without it … I don’t play myself, my
pieces, I like to watch others make of my work what they will. I have
never been a performer but I am purely a composer,” Khoury says.
Perhaps now this fine
Lebanese talent will explode all myths and whether he wins or not will
conclusively get the recognition in Lebanon he deserves.
You can listen to extracts from Khoury and the other finalists’
pieces and vote for your choice at www.masterprize.com
Written by Ramsay Short. Originally published in The Daily Star (Lebanon) on
October 15, 2003. Reprinted by permission of the author.