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.

Did she know? Lebanese diva ignites Twitter storm by posing with Israeli make up artist

A photograph of Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim apparently posing with an Israeli make-up artist in the UAE sparked a social media storm over the weekend. (Screenshot)
Updated 20 September 2021

Did she know? Lebanese diva ignites Twitter storm by posing with Israeli make up artist

A photograph of Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim apparently posing with an Israeli make-up artist in the UAE sparked a social media storm over the weekend. (Screenshot)
  • Some critics predicted the former Miss Lebanon would say she did not know he was from Israel, but others said what difference does it make if he is
  • Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel; the countries have no official ties and Lebanese citizens are forbidden from traveling there

LONDON: A photograph of Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim apparently posing with an Israeli make-up artist in the UAE sparked a social media storm over the weekend.

“Lebanese model and actress Nadine Njeim is pictured with an Israeli make-up artist in UAE. Likely his customer. Is this another case of ‘Oh, I didn’t know’!?” Twitter user Lebanon News and Updates (@LebUpdate) wrote in a message posted on Twitter on Saturday alongside the photograph.

In a subsequent Tweet, he said: “It is confirmed that she was his customer, according to his TikTok video. It is obvious that famous people do not simply choose random makeup artists without some background research on his/her work and experience.”

The messages provoked a number of shocked and angry responses on Twitter.

“Nadine Njeim they are asking for models in Tel Aviv,” a user called Mimo wrote.

Another, called Adam, simply tweeted three puking-face emojis, as others chimed in. Some critics predicted that Njeim, a former beauty queen who was crowned Miss Lebanon in 2004, would say she did not know the makeup artist was from Israel. But other people said so what if he is?

“I am so tired of this backward mentality and these people,” a Twitter user called Romy wrote. “When they’re not destroying Lebanon with their foreign allegiance and ideology they spend their time online on their iPhones stalking people to see if an Israeli breathed near them, and then bully them or get them in trouble.”

Another, 961Iceberg, wrote: “Every time you walk into a hairdresser salon or makeup artist studio, make sure you ask them for a full-blown bio including birth certificate, passports, visas issued and associations with other humans on earth.”

Lebanon is technically still at war with Israel. The countries have no official ties and Lebanese citizens are forbidden from traveling there. In March, a Lebanese social-media activist who had served 10 months of a three-year prison sentence for “collaborating” with Israel was granted bail and released after appealing the verdict.

In 1993, just three years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, and with Israel still occupying the south of a country, a photograph of Lebanese beauty queen Ghada Turk smiling alongside 17-year-old Tamara Porat, Miss Israel, caused public outrage in Lebanon and much criticism in the local media.

In 2015, a selfie taken during a Miss Universe pageant and posted by Miss Israel that included Miss Lebanon, Miss Japan and Miss Slovenia cause a “you do not represent Lebanon” hashtag to go viral. Two years later, Miss Lebanon Amanda Hanna, a dual citizen of Sweden and Lebanon, was stripped of her title a week after winning when it emerged she had previously visited Israel using her Swedish passport.

However, under President Michel Aoun the Lebanese government has engaged in border talks with the Israelis. And in 2020, Lebanon’s prosecutor general decided not to charge fugitive former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn over a visit to Israel in 2008.

It is unknown whether Njeim, who obtained a UAE 10-year Golden Visa in May, has any another citizenship or passport, or what consequences she might face should she return to Lebanon.

The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco signed agreements with Israel last year, dubbed the Abraham Accords, to normalize relations with Israel.

California high school celebrates date links to Middle East

California high school celebrates date links to Middle East
Updated 19 September 2021

California high school celebrates date links to Middle East

California high school celebrates date links to Middle East
  • Coachella Valley High School rebranded it’s Arab mascot after concerns it promoted stereotypes

CALIFORNIA: One hundred years ago Coachella Valley High School adopted the “Arab” as its school mascot after a link was established between that area of California and the Middle East.

“The Department of Agriculture sent out plant explorers all over the world and they were trying to find crops that would be successful here in the US and one of the crops they found were the dates,” said Lissette Santiago, community engagement manager for the Coachella Valley Unified School District.

“That’s how we wanted to honor everything that we had gained from the date industry and obviously that Middle Eastern community.”

But in 2013, complaints that the mascot was promoting racial stereotypes prompted a redesign.

“With the onset of 9/11 in 2001 that might have prompted many people to view the Arab community in a negative way,” she told us. “It was appropriate for us to have this discussion and we were happy that the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee approached us and we were able to have those discussions.”

A year later, they debuted the new “Mighty Arab” mascot, designed in collaboration with and approved by the Arab community, strengthening that 100 year connection between the Coachella Valley and the Middle East.

“To celebrate the Arab world and the Arab community and every year we have a date festival,” Santiago said.

The festival has been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the students and staff are looking forward to next year when they can once again proudly and respectfully wear the symbol of the Mighty Arab and celebrate the date palms they provided.

Bayan Galal: First Arab president of Yale student government, Ivy League

Bayan Galal: First Arab president of Yale student government, Ivy League
Updated 18 September 2021

Bayan Galal: First Arab president of Yale student government, Ivy League

Bayan Galal: First Arab president of Yale student government, Ivy League

Bayan Galal said that she won the election to become the first Arab to serve as president of Yale’s student government by addressing important issues such as health and the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), not by shying away from her Arab and Muslim identity.

The 19-year-old was elected as president of Yale College Council in May while her running mate and fellow female student Zoe Hsu was elected as vice president, the first time an Arab had led the YCC in its 320-year history.

Galal pointed out that her focus on health addressed student concerns about COVID-19 and the manner in which the pandemic had impacted teaching and study procedures at the school.

During an interview on Wednesday on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show” on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, Galal noted that her campaign slogan, “Building a Healthier Yale,” had resonated with Yale students.



“It definitely was not an easy task. We basically had one week to campaign. This election took place at the end of the last academic year, so in May of 2021,” Galal added.

“In this campaign, we had a platform of building a healthier Yale, that was our campaign slogan. Within that we had five central pillars of health that we broke our platform down into. And so, it was physical health, mental health, community health, academic health, and financial health.

“So, we broke it down into these different areas of health that we wanted to focus on to show that we would take a holistic approach to health at Yale and really address the wide range of issues that students were facing.”

Election results at Yale show that Galal won 56.4 percent of the vote with Hsu not far behind. The two had previously served on the YCC, Yale’s student government, with Galal previously serving as the health and COVID-19 chair.

Galal, whose parents are Muslim immigrants from Egypt, wears a hijab and believes that the key to success is educating and informing mainstream Americans about Arab culture and concerns.

She said her Arab and Muslim identity did surface in the election but was positive and did not hinder her election, contributing to her being embraced by the majority of student voters.

And she used her Arab identity to also connect with the concerns of students of color at Yale, demonstrating that she would fight for their rights as well as the rights of all students.



“My identity is something I have not shied away from at all. And I think that because I have been so open about it, and also simultaneously willing to answer the questions that people have; you know, discuss the misconceptions that people will have and things like that.

“I think being willing to consistently have that dialogue and engage with others and just be there as an accessible person to the student body has been an important part of that,” Galal said.

Double majoring in molecular biology and global affairs, and minoring in pre-med, Galal hoped that her tenure would be marked by using her experiences as an Arab Muslim and as a student concerned about the well-being of others to impact other schools that look toward Yale for guidance.



“I think that in this role, in this institution, Yale is a critical placed institution that has the ability to impact a lot of the decisions that are made, to impact the trajectory of a lot of other schools that look to it as an example.

“I think that when you have a student body president who is now finally Arab, it allows Yale to take this direction where it cannot only impact the trajectory of Yale but also hopefully impact other schools as well,” she added.

Galal said that Yale had a small Arab student population of “a couple of hundred … definitely a small community but also a close-knit one.”

In August last year, she founded the Muslim Affinity Network serving as its director to enhance the representation of Muslims on the YCC.

Lawsuit over eggs tests China’s policies on unmarried women

Lawsuit over eggs tests China’s policies on unmarried women
Updated 18 September 2021

Lawsuit over eggs tests China’s policies on unmarried women

Lawsuit over eggs tests China’s policies on unmarried women
  • Teresa Xu is suing a hospital in Beijing that forbid her from freezing her eggs, citing national law
  • Her case is getting heard after the latest census data showed that population growth was slowing

BEIJING: After almost two years, an unmarried woman suing for the right to freeze her eggs in Beijing is getting her case heard in court Friday in a rare legal challenge against the country’s restrictions on unmarried women in reproductive health.
Teresa Xu has been waiting since December 2019 for her second hearing at the Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing. She is suing Beijing Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital at Capital Medical University, a public hospital that forbid her from freezing her eggs, citing national law.
Xu’s victory could mark an important step for unmarried women in China who want to access public benefits. Unlike in the US, though, court judgments in China do not rely on precedence.
“From 2018 until now, it’s been three years, and my eggs are getting older with me, and the deadline is more and more pressing,” Xu, 33, said.
Her case is getting heard after the latest census data showed that population growth was slowing, while the proportion of elderly people was growing. The number of newborns had fallen every year since 2016. National level statistics showed that 12 million babies were born in 2020, down 18 percent from 14.6 million in 2019.
Beijing has responded by allowing families to have a third child, and said it will revamp policy to help families who want to have children.
For decades, China had instituted a “one-child” policy. It eased the restrictions slightly in 2015 to allow families to have two kids, although that did not change the overall slowing of population growth.
Yet, some aspects of the system, such as tying reproductive health services and things like maternity benefits to a woman’s marriage status, has made it difficult for some. China only allows married couples to access reproductive services and related benefits and they must be able to prove their marriage status with the license.
“I hope that the signal it sends about needing population growth will allow single women the opportunity to be able to make their own choice,” Xu told reporters in front of the court.
Xu visited the hospital in November 2018. When she went to the doctor, she was urged to have a child instead of freezing her eggs. The doctor also requested to see her marriage license.
Xu said her court hearing had been continually pushed back, owing in part to the pandemic.
She had briefly considered going abroad, but the costs — between $15,500 to $31,000 — were not feasible.

New York millionaire Robert Durst declared guilty of best friend’s murder

New York millionaire Robert Durst declared guilty of best friend’s murder
Updated 18 September 2021

New York millionaire Robert Durst declared guilty of best friend’s murder

New York millionaire Robert Durst declared guilty of best friend’s murder
  • Durst faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole after he was convicted of first-degree murder
  • Prosecutors painted a portrait of a rich narcissist who ruthlessly disposed of people who stood in his way

INGLEWOOD, California: A Los Angeles jury convicted Robert Durst on Friday of murdering his best friend 20 years ago, a case that took on new life after the New York real estate heir participated in a documentary that connected him to the slaying that was linked to his wife’s 1982 disappearance.
Durst, 78, was not in court for the verdict from the jury that deliberated about seven hours over three days. He was in isolation at a jail because he was exposed to someone with coronavirus.
Durst, who faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole when sentenced Oct. 18, was convicted of the first-degree murder of Susan Berman. She was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head in her Los Angeles home in December 2000 as she was prepared to tell police how she helped cover up his wife’s killing.
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, was Durst’s longtime confidante who told friends she provided a phony alibi for him after his wife vanished.
Prosecutors painted a portrait of a rich narcissist who didn’t think the laws applied to him and ruthlessly disposed of people who stood in his way. They interlaced evidence of Berman’s killing with Kathie Durst’s suspected death and the 2001 killing of a tenant in a Texas flophouse where Robert Durst holed up while on the run from New York authorities.
“Bob Durst has been around a lot of years, and he’s been able to commit a lot of horrific crimes. We just feel really gratified that he’s been held accountable,” Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said.
Lewin met with jurors after the verdict and said they thought prosecutors had proven Durst had killed his wife and had murdered both Berman and his Texas neighbor in an effort to escape justice.
He said jurors did not find Durst credible as a witness.
Durst was arrested in 2015 while hiding out in a New Orleans hotel on the eve of the airing of the final episode of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” in which he was confronted with incriminating evidence and made what prosecutors said was a confession.
Durst could be heard muttering to himself on a live microphone in a bathroom: “There it is. You’re caught.”
Durst’s decision to testify in his own defense — hoping for a repeat of his acquittal in the Texas killing — backfired as he was forced to admit lying under oath, made damning admissions and had his credibility destroyed when questioned by the prosecutor.
Defense lawyer David Chesnoff said Friday they believed there was “substantial reasonable doubt” and were disappointed in the verdict. He said Durst would pursue all avenues of appeal.
The conviction marks a victory for authorities who have sought to put Durst behind bars for murder in three states. Durst was never charged in the disappearance of his wife, who has never been found, and he was acquitted of murder in Galveston, Texas, where he admitted dismembering the victim’s body and tossing it out to sea.
The story of Durst, the estranged scion of a New York real estate developer, has been fodder for New York tabloids since his wife vanished. He provided plot twists so numerous that Hollywood couldn’t resist making a feature film about his life that eventually led to the documentary and discovery of new evidence in Berman’s slaying.
Durst ran from the law multiple times, disguised as a mute woman in Texas and staying under an alias at a New Orleans hotel with a shoulders-to-head latex mask for a presumed getaway. He jumped bail in Texas and was arrested after shoplifting a chicken sandwich in Pennsylvania, despite having $37,000 in cash — along with two handguns — in his rental car.
He later quipped that he was “the worst fugitive the world has ever met.”
Durst escaped close scrutiny from investigators when his wife disappeared. But his troubles resurfaced in late 2000 when New York authorities reopened the case.
His lawyer told him to be prepared to be charged in the case, and he fled a life of luxury to Galveston, Texas, where he rented a cheap apartment as “Dorothy Ciner,” a woman he pretended couldn’t speak. He eventually dropped the disguise after mishaps that included walking into a men’s restroom and igniting his wig at a bar while lighting a cigarette.
Just before Christmas, he testified that he traveled to LA to visit Berman for a “staycation” with plans to see some of the tourist sites.
Durst, who had long denied ever being in LA at the time of Berman’s death, testified at trial that he found her dead on a bedroom floor when he arrived.
Berman, a writer who had been friends with Durst since they were students at the University of California, Los Angeles, had serious financial problems at the time. Durst had given her $50,000, and prosecutors suggested she was trying to leverage more money from him by telling him she was going to speak with the cops.
Nine months after her death, Durst killed his Galveston neighbor Morris Black, in what he said was either an accident or self-defense. Durst said he found Black, who he had become friends with, in his apartment holding Durst’s .22-caliber pistol.
Durst was acquitted after testifying the 71-year-old was killed in a struggle for the gun. Durst then chopped up Black’s body and tossed it out to sea. He was convicted of destroying evidence for discarding the body parts.
After the trial and the ghastly evidence of the dismemberment, Durst found he was a pariah, he said. Despite an estimated $100 million fortune, he was turned away by multiple condominium associations and said the Los Angeles County Museum of Art wouldn’t take his money unless he donated anonymously.
Durst thought a 2010 feature film based on his life, “All Good Things,” starring Ryan Gosling as him and Kirsten Dunst as Kathie, had been largely accurate and painted a sympathetic portrait, despite implicating him in three killings. He only objected that he was depicted killing his dog — something he would never do.
He reached out to the filmmaker and agreed to sit for lengthy interviews for a documentary. He encouraged his friends to do the same and gave the filmmakers access to boxes of his records.
He came to deeply regret his decision after “The Jinx” aired on HBO in 2015, calling it a “very, very, very big mistake.”
The documentary filmmakers discovered a crucial piece of evidence that connected him to an anonymous note sent to police directing them to Berman’s lifeless body.
Durst, who was so confident he couldn’t be connected to the note, told filmmakers “only the killer could have written” the note.
Filmmakers confronted him with a letter he sent Berman a year earlier. The handwriting was identical and Beverly Hills was misspelled as “Beverley” on both. He couldn’t tell the two apart.
The gotcha moment provided the climax of the movie as Durst stepped off camera and muttered to himself on a live microphone in the bathroom: “Killed them all, of course.”
During 14 days of testimony that was so punishing Judge Mark Windham called it “devastating,” Durst denied killing his wife and Berman, though he said he would lie if he did.
He tried to explain away the note and what prosecutors said was a confession during an unguarded moment.
For the first time, Durst admitted on the witness stand that he sent the note and had been in Los Angeles at the time of Berman’s death.
Durst said he sent the note because he wanted Berman to be found but didn’t want anyone to know he had been there because it would look suspicious.
He acknowledged that even he had difficulty imagining he could have written the note without killing Berman.
“It’s very difficult to believe, to accept, that I wrote the letter and did not kill Susan Berman,” Durst testified.
A prosecutor said it was one of the truest things Durst said amid a ton of lies.