, July 2006
What is happening in Lebanon right now is tragic. Once again, this country is caught in the midst of vendetta and vengeance. If such a thing as learning from history remains of vital concern, then we should sit down and listen to El-Khoury.
Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957. He completed his musical training in Lebanon and groomed himself into becoming an accomplished composer, pianist, conductor, chorus-master and poet. He was celebrated as a child prodigy, with some hundred musical compositions written between 1969 -- when he was only twelve -- and 1978. From fourteen on, he also had several collections of poems published. In 1979, he furthered his studies in Paris with Pierre-Petit at the Ecole Normande de Musique. An El-Khoury concert was given in Paris on December 9, 1983, by the Orchestre Colonne under Pierre Dervaux. All the tracks on this CD -- except for "Dance of the Eagles" -- were in fact premiered on that occasion. I would have guessed that this was a world premiere recording, originally released on the French label Forlane, with the recording dated a few months before the concert. The sonic quality of the Naxos re-issue is exceptional, with well-balanced orchestral timbres and a well-rendered sound stage, most critical for this kind of complex symphonic project. The two works that I would like to focus on were composed in 1980 - the Symphonic Poem No.1: Lebanon in Flames and the Orchestral Requiem: For the Lebanese Martyrs in the War. These two works form the first two panels of El-Khoury's Lebanon triptych. The third panel, Symphony: the Ruins of Beirut, was composed in 1985 and recorded by Naxos [8.557043].
Lebanon has been the cradle of civilization for nearly 5,000 years. As early as 2,700 B.C. the Phoenicians, originally from Babylon, settled on a narrow strip of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and built city kingdoms in what are now Tripoli, Sidon and Beirut. Through the successive reigns of the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Roman Empire, Arabs, Egyptians, the Ottoman Empire and France up to its independence in 1943, Lebanon has inherited a wealth of cultural traditions from East and West, modern and old. Prior to the civil war between Lebanese Christians and Lebanese Muslims in 1975, Lebanon was the envy of the region for its multicultural wealth and religious variety. The country was dubbed "Switzerland of the Middle East" and Beirut was sometimes called the "Paris of the Middle East".
It was in Beirut that El-Khoury composed the first two panels of his Lebanon triptych in 1980. The war has just turned from bad to worse after Syria had annexed Lebanon in 1976 and Israel then invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Lebanon in Flames was never intended to be a musical tone poem of the war per se and therefore bears only very remote resemblance to war-related symphonic works as, say those of Shostakovich adored by audiophiles. It is very noble of El-Khoury to not flood his work with unbearable patriotic lament but to make a strong, more universal statement that seems to be asking why so little was done so late.
If it is a silent accusation at heart, it's a rather calm and well-composed one, considering the sufferings the composer and his fellow countrymen had gone through and were still going through at the time. The effect of this deliberate restraint is therefore much more powerful. Listen to the sorrowful yet dignified theme presented by the strings at 2:30, first accentuated by brass and timpani, then further emotionally stirred by the side drums at around 5:00. Pierre-Petit wrote about the composer: "El-Khoury's music is deeply rooted in the soil of his own country but his solid knowledge of western technique allows him to attempt with success the delicate amalgamation of oriental sensibility with the language of Europe."
The bewitching Oriental theme delivered by the woodwinds rising above the harp at 7:35 is the finest such example. This exquisite theme is like a little flower sprouting out of nowhere in the battle field, young and fragile but full of hope. The pulse intensifies after 10:00, somehow signifying imminent danger. From 15:00 onwards, the victorious finale intertwines with the praying for peace. Although the programmatic notes do not provide sufficient detail, El-Khoury's music and orchestration are descriptive or thought-provoking enough to lead us through. Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestre Colonne also have done a superb job in teasing out every textural detail and revealing every emotional undertone.
Having heard the first panel, it is not too surprisingly to find that the Orchestral Requiem: For the Lebanese Martyrs in the War isn't excessively heart-wrenching either by design. The composer simply took a walk in bold and determined strides through this blood-stained road in history. Noteworthy is the magical Oriental mood that blends with the marching rhythm at around 7:37 and gradually summons up an epic climax, another fine example of Pierre-Petit's testimonial. EL-Khoury didn't know at the time and as was later estimated, that 100,000 people were killed in the 15-year war and 100,000 others became refugees. The most perplexing question of all in view of present events perhaps is, how could this kind of ugly history repeat itself once again?
Apart from the first track "Dance of the Eagles", the music on this CD was never meant to be enjoyable or uplifting. On the contrary. It'll sink your heart. Perhaps for that reason alone, it's worth the experience. In today's music biz trend of self-indulgent pseudo creativity, El-Khoury returns us to deep human feeling and universal passion. He commented that "I am an enthusiast for freedom and accept no sectarianism. Music ought to be the reflection of human feelings and a universal language." Unbelievably, El-Khoury was then only 23 yet he had already mastered this language fluently.