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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.

"Music 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 listener."
~Bechara el-Khoury

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 recognition locally.

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 Khoury.

“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 Magazine:
“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 valid one.”

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

Written by Ramsay Short.  Originally published in The Daily Star (Lebanon) on October 15, 2003.  Reprinted by permission of the author.


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