Don’t let the music stop: Lebanon’s Philharmonic Orchestra’s fight to survive

Don’t let the music stop: Lebanon’s Philharmonic Orchestra’s fight to survive
Since its establishment, the LPO has performed at all major Lebanese festivals. (LPO)
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Updated 08 July 2021

Don’t let the music stop: Lebanon’s Philharmonic Orchestra’s fight to survive

Don’t let the music stop: Lebanon’s Philharmonic Orchestra’s fight to survive
  • At its peak, the orchestra had some 100 members, both Lebanese and foreigners
  • As the crisis accelerates, several musicians have decided to seek pastures new, leaving behind an orchestra that has won accolades for its artistry

DUBAI: It’s hard, almost unimaginable, to find a Lebanese state or private institution not reeling under the burden of the country’s severe economic and financial collapse.

The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, the only one of its kind in the small Mediterranean nation, is no different.

Founded in 1998 by the former President of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music Walid Gholmieh, the orchestra has found itself weaving through a crisis that the World Bank has said will possibly rank among the world’s three worst since the mid-nineteenth century.

The arts organization is one of Lebanon’s only state-sponsored cultural institutions with the ministry of culture paying the salaries of its members, while local and international donors contribute for anything from music stands to the purchase of instruments.

Its expenditures are part of the Ministry of Culture’s budget which has continued to drop over the years.

The ministry’s budget was slashed to LL44 billion in 2021, down from LL48 billion in 2018. At the current market rate, that’s around $2.5 million.

Over a 21-month period, Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value, pushing more than 60 percent of the population below the poverty line as food insecurity soars and businesses shut down.

“Our biggest problem currently is financial and the struggle to retain our foreign musicians,” Lubnan Baalbaki, the permanent conductor of the orchestra, told Arab News.

Baalbaki, who hails from a family of artists, has been the chief conductor of the orchestra since 2012.

His father is a painter while his siblings have also left their mark on the world of music and art.




Baalbaki studied the violin at the National Conservatory, followed by musicology studies at USEK University. Later in Europe, he specialized in conducting. (Prestige)

Now, however, he along with the other musicians that he leads, are facing an uphill battle.

“Their salaries, which are similar to local musicians, range now between $150 and $200,” Baalbaki, who earned a Ph.D. in the ‘psychology of conducting’, said.

When first conceived, the orchestra was just composed of Lebanese, making it a chamber orchestra that was comprised of around 50 musicians. In order to fulfill his aspirations of turning it into a philharmonic orchestra, Gholmieh had to expand his horizons and attract foreign musicians skilled enough to play uncommon instruments like the trombone and double bass.

“These instruments, such as the French horn, are only played by foreigners because we simply don’t have them in Lebanon,” he said.

At its peak, the orchestra had some 100 members, with foreigners sometimes outnumbering local musicians. Now, the orchestra is comprised of some 70 members, split equally between foreign nationals and locals.

“Unfortunately, foreign musicians are barred from working other jobs according to the employment law, unlike their Lebanese counterparts,” Baalbaki said.

Despite the financial distress, Lebanese musicians can play at private events, both locally and abroad, to secure additional sources of revenues, he explained.

As the crisis accelerates, several musicians have decided to seek pastures new, leaving behind an orchestra that has won accolades for its artistry, hosted countless international guest conductors and morphed into a national symbol of unison.

“We still have at least one musician for almost every instrument, but the ensemble has been thinned out,” the young maestro told Arab News.

The classically trained violin and lute player has also expressed concern about his musicians taking up other offers or abandoning the industry completely.

“Like school teachers, our musicians go on their summer break now and there’s a big concern that some of them will simply not report back,” Baalbaki said. 

If that’s the case, the ensemble will find itself in a severe predicament, Walid Mousallem, the interim director of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, told Arab News.

“Their monthly wages are barely enough to pay the rent of their homes,” Mousallem said, highlighting the importance of retaining European musicians in order to preserve the musical diversity of the ensemble.

“At the end of the day, a local musician can fall back on his family’s support, something that a foreigner cannot do,” Baalbaki added.

Before the first signs of the economic crisis began showing in late 2019, Lebanon was considered a cultural and financial hub that was able to draw skilled foreigners with higher salaries, housing and transportation benefits compared to their home countries.

But after coming for the money, they stayed for the country’s charm.




In terms of the musicians comprising the orchestra, sectarian quotas, for once, do not apply, Baalbaki said. (LPO)
 

“A lot of them have a strong affinity for this country after being here for many years,” Baalbaki said.

Now, however, like many of the country’s disappointed youth, they are faced with the prospect of leaving Lebanon in search of a decent living.

“Without financial support, it’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t leave despite their love for Lebanon,” Mousallem said.

Prior to Lebanon’s house of cards tumbling down in the immediate aftermath of mass protests that kicked off in late 2019, the orchestra was a staple of Lebanon’s once vibrant music scene.

Throughout any given season, which ran from September until July, the orchestra would play between 30 and 33 concerts that were mostly free to the public, Mousallem said.

These included breathtaking performances in the renowned Roman temples of the Bekaa in Baalbeck and in a 200-year-old Palace in Beiteddine, Chouf, among countless others.

But nationwide social unrest because of a broken banking system that wiped out life savings, rising food insecurity and soaring inflation made it almost impossible to arrange performances.

The COVID-19 pandemic also forced concert halls to remain closed.

“Since September 2019 we’ve held around 10 or 11 concerts, including two this past June,” Mousallem said.

To make matters worse, the National Higher Conservatory of Music - which oversees the orchestra - has been without a permanent director since its former chief Bassam Saba died after contracting COVID-19 in December 2020.

In line with Lebanon’s power-sharing system, which distributes state positions among certain religious communities, the director of the conservatory must be a Christian Orthodox.

Almost seven months after Saba’s death, a new director has yet to be appointed as politicians wrangle over the top job.

“I’m not a Christian Orthodox so I can’t be the permanent director,” Mousallem said.

“Music is the last place where sectarianism should be involved,” Baalbaki added, noting the scarcity of qualified individuals that can take on this monumental role.

“We don’t have the luxury of picking from a pool of thousands of musicians from every sect. Lebanese musicians are already scarce,” he said, calling on policymakers to stop interfering in the affairs of the conservatory.

Without a permanent director, key decisions to safeguard the orchestra cannot be taken, according to Baalbaki.

Despite these almost insuperable obstacles and nonexistent governmental support, both men remain hopeful in benefactors recognizing their plight.

“We’re under threat yet fighting tooth and nail to safeguard the orchestra and the conservatory, as losing them would be a tremendous loss to Lebanon and its culture,” Mousallem, who has been serving in an interim capacity, said. 

The conservatory is currently in talks with the European Union and foreign ambassadors in a bid to shore up financial support, the scholar, who holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy, said.

“Can you imagine that a country like Lebanon doesn’t have one single national theatre?” Baalbaki finally pointed out in disbelief.


Bollywood superstar’s son gets bail in drugs case

Bollywood superstar’s son gets bail in drugs case
Updated 28 October 2021

Bollywood superstar’s son gets bail in drugs case

Bollywood superstar’s son gets bail in drugs case
  • Khan, 23, and seven others were detained on Oct. 3 when India’s narcotics agents raided a party and seized drugs on a luxury cruise ship
  • Shah Rukh Khan has made no official statement but many Bollywood stars have come to his side

NEW DELHI: An Indian court on Thursday granted bail to Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan’s son in a high-profile drug case that led to the actor finding himself at the center of a boycott campaign on social media.
The Bombay High Court said it will release a detailed order on Aryan Khan’s bail on Friday, which means he is expected to spend another night in jail.
Khan, 23, and seven others were detained on Oct. 3 when India’s narcotics agents raided a party and seized drugs on a luxury cruise ship off the Mumbai coast. He has been held in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail since Oct. 8.
The case has been going on for three weeks and India’s narcotics agency says it has evidence in the form of WhatsApp messages that Khan was involved in illicit drug dealings.
On Thursday, lawyer Anil Singh, who appeared for the agency, told the court that Khan had a history of consuming drugs and has been in contact with peddlers.
Arguing on behalf of Khan, lawyer Mukul Rohatgi told the court that the agency did not find any drugs on Khan at the time of his arrest and allegations that he was in contact with drug dealers were untrue. Rohatgi called Khan’s arrest “arbitrary,” adding that the agency did not conduct a medical examination to show he had consumed drugs.
The agency had last week opposed Khan’s bail plea for the second time, saying it would affect their investigation because he could tamper with evidence and influence witnesses.
The case has been dominating media headlines for weeks and has divided social media in India, with fans of the actor demanding Khan’s release while others calling for a boycott of his father’s films.
On Twitter, Khan and his father’s name have been trending alongside hashtag #BollywoodDruggies. India’s freewheeling TV news channels have also given wall-to-wall coverage to the case, with many of them siding with the narcotics agency.
Shah Rukh Khan has made no official statement but many Bollywood stars have come to his side.
The 55-year-old is India’s most loved star and is known as the “King of Bollywood.” He has starred in more than 105 movies over nearly three decades.
In September last year, some of Bollywood’s most prominent stars were questioned by the narcotics agency in connection with the death of famous actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Rajput died by suicide and doctors and police ruled out drugs.


Man asks Italian police to jail him to escape wife at home

Man asks Italian police to jail him to escape wife at home
Updated 24 October 2021

Man asks Italian police to jail him to escape wife at home

Man asks Italian police to jail him to escape wife at home
  • The man was already under house arrest when he made his plea

Rome: For some people, going to prison can feel like escaping to freedom.
A man under house arrest in Italy showed up at a police barracks asking to be put behind bars because life with his wife at home was unbearable, police said Sunday.
The 30-year-old Albanian citizen living in Guidonia Montecelio, outside Rome, “was no longer able to cope with the forced cohabitation with his wife,” Carabinieri police from nearby Tivoli said in a statement.
“Exasperated by the situation, he preferred to escape, spontaneously presenting himself to the Carabinieri to ask to serve his sentence behind bars,” they wrote.
The man had been under house arrest for drug crimes for several months and had a few years left to serve, Captain Francesco Giacomo Ferrante of the Tivoli Carabinieri told AFP.
“He lived at home with his wife and family. It wasn’t going well anymore,” Ferrante said.
“He said, ‘Listen, my domestic life has become hell, I can’t do it anymore, I want to go to jail.”
The man was promptly arrested for violating his house arrest and judicial authorities ordered his transfer to prison.


Police: Burglar gets new keys before she’s locked up

Police: Burglar gets new keys before she’s locked up
Updated 23 October 2021

Police: Burglar gets new keys before she’s locked up

Police: Burglar gets new keys before she’s locked up

CORONADO, California: A woman pretended she owned a Southern California home so a locksmith would make her new keys. Then police locked her up.
Officers arrested a 43-year-old woman on suspicion of burglary Thursday night in Coronado, a resort city across the bay from San Diego.
The brazen burglary was foiled when the real homeowner called Coronado police and said her neighbor noticed suspicious activity at the home. The homeowner was out of town, yet the neighbor saw the home’s lights being turned on and off.
Officers arrived and the neighbor — a relative of the homeowner’s — gave them a spare key. But it didn’t fit the front door’s lock, and metal shavings and pieces of an old lock were on the ground nearby.
As police walked around the home, they saw back doors open and a fireplace turned on as music played inside. After calling for a helicopter and a K-9 unit, officers saw someone moving around on the second floor in what was supposed to be an empty house with only one spare key.
Police called out to the person inside, who came out a few minutes later and was arrested. The woman claimed there were two kids in the house, but a police search turned up empty.
The woman told police the home was hers and said she’d called a locksmith earlier to change the front door’s locks.
No word if the burglar gave anyone a spare key.


Endangered orangutan in New Orleans expecting twins

Endangered orangutan in New Orleans expecting twins
Updated 21 October 2021

Endangered orangutan in New Orleans expecting twins

Endangered orangutan in New Orleans expecting twins
  • “We are very excited about this pregnancy,” Bob MacLean, senior veterinarian at the Audubon Zoo, said
  • The births in December or January will be the first for Menari, 12, but the third and fourth sired by Jambi

NEW ORLEANS: A critically endangered Sumatran orangutan in New Orleans is pregnant with twins, the zoo in New Orleans announced Thursday.
“We are very excited about this pregnancy,” Bob MacLean, senior veterinarian at the Audubon Zoo, said in a news release. “Twinning is extremely rare in orangutans — there is only about a 1 percent chance of this happening.”
The births in December or January will be the first for Menari, 12, but the third and fourth sired by Jambi, a male brought to New Orleans in late 2018 from a zoo in Germany.
It may be six years or more before the group’s next babies.
Sumatran orangutans wean their offspring at about 7 years old and have the longest period between births of any mammals — 8.2 to 9.3 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The great apes named for their long red hair have been decimated by hunting as well as the destruction of the forests and peat swamps where they spend nearly all their time up in trees.
About 13,500 are believed to exist in sustainable wild populations, and “overall numbers continue to decline dramatically,” according to the IUCN.
Watching matriarch Feliz and Reese, who came to New Orleans in 2018 from ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, give birth to and bring up their daughters has helped prepare hand-raised Menari for motherhood, officials said.
Bulan was born in July 2019 to Feliz, who also is Menari’s mother. Reese’s daughter Madu was born in February.
The zoo said keepers and veterinarians are giving Menari daily training and enrichment sessions to prepare her for motherhood and the possibility that she might need help raising one or both.
If all goes well, the orangutan twins will be the second pair born at Audubon.
Bon Temps and Lagniappe, nicknamed Bonnie and Lana, were hand-raised after their birth in 1985 to an orangutan named Sarah. Bonnie died in 2016 at Zoo Miami; Lana, 36, is in Greenville Zoo in South Carolina.


‘Mo, meet Mo’: Salah introduced to Madame Tussauds waxwork for first time

Mohamed Salah meeting his waxwork doppelgänger during a private viewing at London’s Madame Tussauds. (Supplied)
Mohamed Salah meeting his waxwork doppelgänger during a private viewing at London’s Madame Tussauds. (Supplied)
Updated 21 October 2021

‘Mo, meet Mo’: Salah introduced to Madame Tussauds waxwork for first time

Mohamed Salah meeting his waxwork doppelgänger during a private viewing at London’s Madame Tussauds. (Supplied)
  • Star striker said it was “a blessing” to be included in lineup of stars at famous London attraction

LONDON: Liverpool and Egypt superstar Mohamed Salah was introduced to his waxwork doppelgänger during a private viewing at London’s Madame Tussauds museum on Thursday.

Though he can count Premier League and Champions League titles and playing for Egypt at a World Cup among his achievements, now Salah has achieved a genuine celebrity milestone.

Coming face to face with his waxy likeness for the first time since a measurement sitting with the Madame Tussauds artists, the striker said it was “a blessing” to be included in the lineup of stars at the famous attraction.

“It’s a blessing to be recognized and immortalized in this way,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I stood alongside ‘me,’ it’s like looking at my own reflection in a mirror! I can’t wait to see what the fans think.”

While Salah is instantly recognizable the world over wearing the red kit of Liverpool, his figure in the museum dons a cream suit, like the real Salah wore on the front cover of GQ Middle East magazine.

His figure also has fingers pointing upwards in his classic red carpet pose and goalscoring celebration. 

The statue will be viewable for the public from Oct. 22 and can be found alongside other A-listers, including members of the British royal family, David and Victoria Beckham, Dwayne Johnson, Dame Helen Mirren, Brad Pitt and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Salah’s two goals on Tuesday against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, meanwhile, saw him become the first player in Liverpool’s history to find the net in nine consecutive appearances in all competitions.