BEIRUT: Walid Gholmieh, a singular force of nature on Lebanon’s classical music landscape, died in Beirut’s American University Hospital Tuesday evening at the age of 73.
A member of Gholmieh’s staff told The Daily Star he had been in hospital for the last 10 days, receiving treatment for a pancreatic condition with which he was reported to have struggled for some time.
One of the most-prominent conductors, composers, scholars and activists for Western classical music in the Middle East, Gholmieh was born in the south Lebanese town of Marjayoun.
He studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut before deciding to devote his formal education and creative energies to music.
The president of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, founder of both the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra and the Lebanese National Arabic Oriental Orchestra, Gholmieh saw his mission to be educating Lebanese in the Western classical music tradition.
Since it was established in 2000, the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra has proved itself both locally and regionally. Over its last 25 months, the orchestra has presented an international repertoire of renowned composers in more than 60 performances within Beirut and outside.
“Gholmieh rebuilt the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra from below zero,” recalled Myrna Bustani, the founder of Lebanon’s Al-Bustan classical music festival and very much a kindred spirit in Gholmieh’s mission to educate the country’s musical palate.
“His was a life utterly dedicated to music,” Bustani continued. “He started his work [building the LNHC] in a small flat in Sin al-Fil, and only later moved to the conservatoire’s present center in Zuqaq al-Blat.
He created the orchestra in 2000 out of next to nothing – we’d had a chamber orchestra before but never a full orchestra. It is truly remarkable that he was able to accomplish so much, and to do so single-handedly.
“He had a remarkable drive, running not one but two conservatories and not one orchestra but two. He had a family of 5000 students,” she paused. “He brought beauty back to Lebanon.”
Gholmieh led the LNSO on numerous occasions since its creation 21 years ago, though he often shared the baton with visiting conductors. Among his best-remembered outings was the August 2002 concert at the Baalbek International Festival.
In April, 2006, Gholmieh lead the LNAOO in what has been described as a captivating evening of Arabic music classics at the annual Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation festival.
He has also headed the panel of judges on the Lebanese, television talent show, “Studio al-Fan,” which has been credited with launching the careers of more than one Lebanese and Arab artist.
Gholmieh’s extensive list of compositions include “Ardulfurataini Watan” (Land of Two Rivers), the Iraqi national anthem from 1979 until 2003.
More recently, Gholmieh was among the artists featured on “Plastic Beach,” the 2010 album by Damon Albarn’s virtual band Gorillaz.
Gholmieh has passed away with many irons still on the fire.
Since the LNSO was reconstructed, most of its scheduled Beirut area performances – aside from those held at Al-Bustan – have been held at The Church of St. Joseph des Peres Jesuites in Ashrafieh. These free shows have become a regular fixture in the musical life of the city.
Bustani and Gholmieh had plans to further consolidate the place of classical music in the city, however. They were partners in championing the Music Institute and People’s Theater. This performance space had got clearance for construction in Tahwita in 1975 but the outbreak of civil war that year prevented its being erected. Gholmieh had been working to revive the project for the past 10 years.
Gholmieh envisioned a center of around 13,000 square meters and foresaw a main concert hall complemented by two smaller spaces – one for a chamber orchestra, and the other for piano recitals, duets and other small-scale performances.
“Lebanese people love culture. They love music,” he said in a recent interview with The Daily Star. “Everybody wants a concert hall … It’s a shame not to have a concert hall … and it’s going to be done. It’s itching to be done.”