Archive | March, 2011

The manifestation of God, through Orthodox chanting

25 Mar

RABIEH: Invocations of God manifest themselves in a multitude of ways. Monks devote their lives to isolated contemplation; hermits cut themselves off from human society altogether. A Julian of Norwich-esque mystic writes, a Michaelangelo transforms a chapel’s ceiling into a work of art. And religious writers compose hymns.

Music is one of the most unifying forms of representing and rousing love for God. Whether one is listening to others dedicate their voices skyward or participating, the sense of a shared exalted experience can be overwhelming.

It is perhaps for this reason that church choirs remain popular. Hymns provide occasion for a unity of contemplation, devotion, confession and celebration – they allow singers and observers alike to feel that they are part of a divine landscape, closer both to God and the others present.

Little wonder, then, that a liturgy – the words and music of Mass – can have such potency. And the Orthodox liturgy of the Sofia Orthodox Choir (SOC) is no exception.

As part of the Al-Bustan festival, the SOC performed in Beirut’s St. George Cathedral Tuesday and in the St. Elias Greek Orthodox Church of Rabieh Wednesday. The group has toured the world’s best and brightest cathedrals, venues that provide apt expression for the harmony of their voices.

According to Al-Bustan literature, Eastern Orthodox Church music “never fails to move and stir emotions, whether one is religious or not.”

A grand claim, but Wednesday’s performance suggests that it is a reasonable one. The SOC’s Rabieh performance, “Movement of the Soul,” was wholly absorbing.

The two-hour program was constructed around the troparion, a form of short hymn. Deriving from the Greek “tropos,” meaning “something repeated,” the troparion depends on repetition and is an ancient part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

The SOC’s conductor, Miroslav Popsavov, explained that “all saints have troparions sung for their glorification.” The basis for any troparion is the life of a particular saint.

Wednesday’s troparion was to the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Bulgarian alphabet. Popsavov explained that all countries of Slavic origin – such as Serbia, Russia, Slovakia – use this alphabet. The saints are credited with providing “opportunity for the Slavic countries to become united through language.”

Considering the importance of language in “Movement of the Soul,” this seems apt. Instruments are not permitted in the Greek Orthodox liturgy: music is entirely vocal, with men’s voices providing both tune and lyrics. The effect is an intoning chant that hums and drifts on dual levels, an ongoing backdrop with occasional surges forward, usually higher in pitch.

An a cappella choir, the SOC’s is an art form which is technically difficult. Participation in the choir is an act of religious devotion, but divine inspiration alone cannot render it. It requires lifelong training.

Each member of the 18-strong choir is professional, the SOC being just one of their “jobs,” Popsavov pointed out. Some sing in the Bulgarian National Philharmonic Choir, others in the National Radio Mixed Choir. Others perform in the opera.

The SOC has a female and a male choir, although only the male choir took part in this year’s festival. Many of the men have been musically educated since the age of five, with their voices trained for Orthodox chanting as soon as they deepen at puberty.

Now that each member has attained a professional level, regular practice is a mere twice-weekly event in the Cathedral of the Patriarch of Bulgaria, St. Nedelya, with additional practice before performances.

The Orthodox chant is an elusive art form, one that requires a particularly attentive kind of intuition. Not only is the subject-matter intensely religious and dependent on its power to provoke a mirroring feeling in observers, but each choir member must concentrate on the voice, pitch and pace of other choral members while maintaining his own.

The focus of the performers was almost as impressive to witness as the strength of their voices. With each face sincere and solemn, the choir presented a picture of concord – indeed, a picture of the unification that the short troparion aimed to induce through voice.

Throughout the performance, every eye was focused on the conductor and every chest directed toward him, creating a semi-circle of stares that seemed impossible to penetrate. Even the way the choir entered and exited the stage area was peaceful, each member holding back his step and allowing the other to proceed slowly, mutely and with a sober gravity.

Offstage, their animation and vigor told a different story, the thrill of performance clearly as exciting to them as to any actor. In conversation the men interrupt one another, and then give way to giggling smiles that confirm their onstage solidarity.

The oldest member of the choir was born in 1943, and the youngest is a mere 26. In light of the fact that they perform together just twice a week, their accord is remarkable.

Orthodox chanting is certainly music to contemplate to. With rumbling baritones followed by tour-de-force surges of a shriller sound, it is elusive and vague, almost impossible to describe or even evoke without some gesture of poetry (or ideally a concert you can see for yourself). Wednesday’s performance was 18 rich voices calling to God and depicting his saints – and, given those harmonious facial expressions, the performances seemed to be at a level closer to divinity than most attain.

The SOC had a power that reached into the audience too. Few performances, in the Al-Bustan Festival or otherwise, manage to keep an audience so completely silent throughout.

But this audience – and though the church was not full, it was busy – remained somber and reflective. Like Popsavov and this masterful choir, their absorption was total.

If one wants to contemplate the divine, Orthodox chants might just be the perfect art form.


Edge-of-War stories

24 Mar

Beirut: Like business, the making of art is disrupted by war. War also stimulates some sorts of business, of course. A short roll-call of past centuries’ cultural production – Homer’s “Iliad,” say, or Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry, or Picasso’s “Guernica” – lends weight to the notion that, with the advantage of distance, fine art can come of war.

The Israeli armed forces34-day war against Lebanon in 2006 has inspired any number of literary works on both sides of this country’s troubled southern border. One of the best-known is “Beirut, I Love You” (Saqi), by Lebanese pop artist Zena el Khalil, who found worldwide fame during this conflict with her blog recording its progress,

Now a new novel by fledgling London-based Lebanese writer Dania el Kadi aspires to spice-up war literature. “Summer Blast,” depicts itself as “chick lit with a difference.” The book’s subtitle is “When war threatens Lebanese women’s plans.”

From the outset, Kadi informs her reader that this is one war tale that should be read with a pinch of salt. The front cover, emblazoned with a pair of spiky red stilettos, does not contradict this impression.

“Summer Blast” will not appeal to readers searching for a profound insight into Lebanon’s most recent war. Even those eager for a “Sex and the City” style depiction may well find Kadi’s debut novel a tad unsatisfactory.

The novel does have many of the strengths of a light read.

The author cannot be accused of being pretentious and the reader is unlikely to be forced to draw upon a dictionary to get through the story. Arcane references to Lebanese political culture are also wanting. Lebanese readers curious to know about Dubai and Miami may enjoy facets of the book, since the July War provides a springboard to some lively anecdotes of these other places.

When it comes to the book’s depictions of Lebanon, unfortunately, there is an odd lack of authenticity.

Elyssar, the main character whose perspective governs the opening chapter, is jolted from sleep by “the screech of the warplanes.” She first “lunge[s] to secure” a mirror. Then, moments later, she is “too scared to move.”

Kadi’s portrayal of fear amounts to a multitude of mutually-contradictory stock reactions. It’s not that panic doesn’t make people do things that are at cross-purposes with one another, simply that Kadi’s depiction of this behavior is unconvincing.

The fact that Elyssar’s mother and sister are similarly afraid – her father, meanwhile sits watching the television – only adds to the artificiality of the opening scene. Word and deed seem incongruous, assigned to individual characters not on an organic basis but by virtue of how certain character types are meant to behave.

The impression that characters are purely functional may stem from Kadi’s thematic agenda. The novel aims to show the resilience of these Lebanese women at wartime, to depict them as having the same strength of character as “Western” women, and to prove that Lebanese women share the same values as other women around the world.

These values, alas, appear to be limited to “men and shoes.” For some readers keen to plumb the existential depths of feminine resilience at wartime, Kadi’s empowered women may seem on the shallow side.

This seeming lack of depth is not a function of chick lit per se. Because Kadi’s characters appear to have been designed to represent particular attributes – rather than complex, at times contradictory, nuanced and developing creatures – they don’t feel real. Insofar as the plot serves as a series of stages where the author can make the points she wants to make about Lebanese society, it feels a trifle contrived.

The third-persona narrator describes Elyssar’s lifelong dream to see Madonna in concert, then adds offhandedly that this might be because “attending a pop concert had felt so out of reach … when … growing up.” Once introduced, this theme is never pursued, suggesting to the skeptical reader that it is being employed merely because it suggests something “exotic” about Lebanon.

For some local readers, at least, efforts to evoke Lebanon’s exoticism are irritating. On page three it’s mentioned that Elyssar is in her thirties and still living at home. Whether “the social norm allowed it or not,” she berates herself, “she had to find a way to leave her parents’ home.”

If Elyssar is meant to be representative of Lebanese society, you may wonder when the author last assessed that society. While living at home into adulthood is common – for both sexes, not just women as Kadi implies – moving out of the family house and into another place in Beirut is not unheard of. Cohabitation is much more of a taboo but even this is becoming more common.

The fact that this theme too is no further developed ultimately cements its initial ring of artificiality. Neither Elyssar nor her family express concern about her living situation. When Elyssar does leave Lebanon for America, her family actively encourages her.

This aura of artifice persists throughout “Summer Blast.”

Many of the book’s references to Lebanese customs or quirks do not quite work. Elyssar refers to her cousins as “cousinettes,” a sweet sugar-dusting of Lebanese culture that fails when the cousins improbably assign the label to themselves as well.

Elyssar’s cousin Maya is barely dressed when she arrives at the family’s mountain refuge, because the aerial attacks forced her to flee Beirut quickly. Elyssar focuses on her Uncle Najeeb’s “own nuclear blast” of annoyance that his niece is improperly dressed.

To this point Najeeb has not been depicted as conservative or unsympathetic in any way. Sympathetic characters have been known to behave inexplicably, but Kadi’s rendering of the incident rings true with neither the situation nor the character.

Such evocations of Lebaneseness are frequent, gestures to the “foreignness” of Lebanon that seem to be mere stock gestures.

Similarly, Kadi’s efforts to define Lebanese women as powerful women, mirrors of the “Sex and the City” characters they love, is unsatisfactory. Elyssar, Maya and Rouba each play stock roles and fulfil rhetorical objectives. Kadi’s empowered women are puppets, leaving the reader with the unpleasant sense that Lebanese women are empty and insubstantial.

Her depiction of “the intelligent Lebanese woman” is as crass as a portrait of “the suppressed Arab woman.”

“Just because an American in a uniform has spoken to her she’d started having visions of herself in Guantanamo,” she writes in her sole reference to Arab-American relations. “ … Orange was not her color.”

The summer war hardly features in this book. It provides a framing device for Kadi’s project to depict Lebanese women the way she depicts them. Like the characters who are her mouthpieces, those 34 days of war are a tangential side-effect of the storyline.

“Croydon” manor?

23 Mar

funny photos from random wanderings round Hamra …


23 Mar

Thowra! Revolution cometh..(maybe)

22 Mar

For the last three weeks the number of people gathered outside Beirut’s Sanayeh Gardens has been growing.  Every day when I walk past a new face is handing out leaflets; another sign has sprung up; more and more passers-by are stopping to see what it’s all about.  The answer? The site is home to Lebanon’s newest cause, anti-sectarian politics.

Under the current system, the President of Lebanon has to be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Parliament Speaker Shi’a.  With revolutionary movements spreading across the Arab world, the Lebanese are keen to improve their own faulty system.  Discontent has been increasing with Lebanon’s political situation – never in any case stable – since mid-January, when Hezbollah forced the collapse of Sa’ad Hariri’s government.  For the last two months, Prime Minister designate Najib Mikati has been trying to form a government of his own; no one knows how long this process will take.  Yesterday Sot Libnan (Voice of Lebanon) radio station broadcast Assem Aaraji  stating that Mikati would resign as PM before ever beginning his position properly.  Who knows.  Regardless of whether or not he succeeds, more and more people are calling for a complete change of the political system.  More specifically, they are calling for a “thowra”: a revolution.

The camp outside Sanayeh Gardens, where the Interior Ministry is based, is not just a gathering point.  Protesters have been eating there, working there, sleeping there.  And organising, fervently.  On Sunday, one week after the March 14 coalition held their gathering in Martyr’s Square, a mass anti-sectarianism rally took place across Beirut.  It had been well-publicised beforehand, with the Sanayeh campers trying to rally the public to their cause as much as possible, handing out fliers and talking to press.  In the days leading up to Sunday you couldn’t be in a traffic jam in Beirut without someone tapping at the window and handing out a leaflet.

Nevertheless it wasn’t clear until the day itself how well attended the rally would be.  Lebanon’s anti-sectarian movement has been around for years; only now is its appeal significantly widening.  There was also the fact that the rally was in fact a full-on march from Sassine to Sanayeh – a challenge for any Lebanese who likes Sunday lunches and grumbles at walking from the valet parkspot to the door of a restaurant.  But the turnout was beyond what anybody anticipated.  Thousands attended.

Whether the people’s voice will be heeded remains to be seen; but if desire is anything to go by, change in Lebanon might just be on the way.  My fingers are crossed.

Phone pics following…

Mahler’s Titan: truly, madly, deeply

16 Mar

BEIRUT: “Truly, Deeply, Titanic,” as Al-Bustan organizers called Monday evening’s Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, may sound a bit incongruous. The festival booklet’s description of the piece – “It releases an ardent energy, depicting true joy of life” – is more pithy.

As it turns out, Al-Bustan got it spot on. The trio of words not only evokes the exact qualities of Mahler’s “Symphony No.1 in D Major” (powerful, mighty, grand) it also cleverly plays on the title of said symphony: “Titan.”

Each of the four movements of “Titan” depicts an aspect of nature and seems to suggest a seasonal theme.

The first movement, intended to create the awakening of nature after winter’s long sleep, depicts the coming of spring. The second movement is based on an Austrian folk dance. The third parodies a funeral march. The final movement evokes a storm.

Under the baton of conductor Gianluca Marciano, the LPO proved such summaries to be empty of meaning.

Mahler’s symphony began quietly, each instrument announcing its presence like the first springtime growth. As strings began moving in unison, separate melodies mingled into a gradual, still reserved, swelling.

The first movement was absorbing for the way in which the various instruments and the melodies they rendered seemed to supersede one another, like ripples on a thawing lake, then relent as another wave washed over it.

Marciano also serves as Al-Bustan’s music director and his abilities were evident from the first flick of his wrist. He marked initial sparse moments of tension with a languorous movement of the baton. He seemed to accompany or interpret the music, rather than directing it, transforming the waxing and waning of rhythms into performance.

The 35-year-old Italian maestro comes to conducting via the piano. He made his piano recital debut at the age of 10 and has since won several national and international competitions.

The first movement reiterated its tone of foreboding, punctuated by shrill violin, while Marciano’s movements were so contained as to suggest a powerful escalation of energy without appearing frenetic. At moments of building tension, Marciano looked like a spider suspended from its web.

The calm that marked the end of the first movement was dashed by the vigorous opening bars of the second movement. The dramatic opening moments were cheekily deflated by moments of rebellious, youthful joy.

Most of the second movement evoked growth and blossoming and the performances of conductor and orchestra reflected a more-relaxed tenor.

The LPO began as the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra in 1998 and has been performing at Al-Bustan since 2000. It was not until 2009 that the LPO title became official. Given that “philharmonic” literally means “lover of harmony,” the change in name seemed especially apposite on Monday evening.

A gigantic orchestral enterprise, Mahler’s first symphony was written with more than 100 musicians in mind. The LPO on Monday evening comprised a mere 98 players, but their rendition of the piece was entirely stunning.

The third movement commenced in a serpentine fashion, with instruments intermittently reiterating themes that harkened back to the opening movement, each of the orchestra’s voices contributing a strand to the sonic fabric’s greater whole, each foreseeing and mimicking the progress of the other.

After the swelling, provocative violins and moments of strong percussion, suggesting a gradual, predatory advance, the third movement ended with astonishing tension.

The fourth movement then dispelled this tension, with the trombones and tuba leading the orchestra in a violent, escalading tumult of chorusing, the trumpets seeming to sound repeated warnings.

The escalating violin lines were evocative, first of discovery, then of action, decision, momentum, movement and, pounding throughout, energy.

By the time the final movement of Mahler’s symphony approached its end, audience members were sitting, erect and alert, in their pews.

Mahler’s first symphony ended with a gathering of momentum first bolstered and then transformed by trumpets, elevated to another level entirely by thumps of the bassoon and thrusts of the violin.

Marciano gave expression to the audience’s own pent-up tension, jumping into the air at the final escalatory movement, with trilling from the quartet of flutes penetrating the music’s sober depths.

The great success of this performance was due, in no small part, to the choice of venue.

While most of the Al-Bustan festival’s shows are staged the Beit Meri hotel of the same name, the Mahler was performed in St. Joseph Jesuit Church, in east Beirut. The structure’s high ceilings and stone walls proved ideal for the resonance and energy of Mahler’s composition.

But it was the magnificent energy of the LPO, under the baton of the irrepressible Marciano, that made the show exceptional. Who would have thought that witnessing something “titanic” could be so spectacular?

Marciano will conduct the LPO in its performance of Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” on 18 March. Al-Bustan continues until 27 March. For more information call 04-972980/1/2.

Dar-al-Mussawir: the Home of the Photographer

14 Mar

Beneath the Veil

11 Mar

Redefining Resistance at 98weeks

11 Mar

Jumblatt: Sa’ad is not Rafik

9 Mar

Jumblatt accuses Sa’ad Hariri of using his father’s death to his advantage: