Al-Bustan tackles old music in new ways, says music director

Photo courtesy of Al-Bustan

BEIT MERY, Lebanon: This year marks the 20th anniversary of Festival Al-Bustan, launched by Myrna Bustani in 1993, in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War. The Daily Star spoke with the festival’s music director Gianluca Marciano, Italian conductor, pianist and director of the Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet Theater in Georgia, about his vision for Al-Bustan two decades on.

As music director, Marciano explains, he has multiple responsibilities. “My contribution is a double one,” he says, gesturing animatedly, as though conducting his own words. “First I am involved in programming, so I suggest artists, programs, ideas and themes, and then there is also an active contribution as a music director, so that means I am conducting many events of the festival. ... Sometimes I sit at the piano as well.”

Marciano took on the job of music director in 2011, after attending the festival in 2010 where he enjoyed himself so much that he approached Bustani and asked to work with her. “We always discuss everything together,” he says. “The teamwork is basically the winning key to our job.”

Marciano’s roster of friends from the world classical circuit makes attracting big stars to Lebanon possible in spite of the festival’s limited budget, he says. He is often able to convince his contacts to play as a favor and once they attend, he explains, they always want to come back and often pass on the word to other musicians.

This year, in keeping with the 20th anniversary, Al-Bustan’s team have taken a different approach, spearheaded by Marciano, who believes the face of classical music is changing and is determined to attract a younger audience and ensure the value of classical music is appreciated by a new generation.

“We are a classical music festival. That’s clear,” he says. “But classical music is developing to another level. It’s making itself much younger. It’s renovating itself with an injection of fresh blood – keeping in mind that quality is our motto.”

This change is reflected in this year’s program and Marciano’s choice of performers. Though much of the repertoire remains very traditional, there are some innovative exceptions, such as a performance by MoZuluArt on March 1, which featured three singers from Zimbabwe in collaboration with an ensemble of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, fusing traditional African songs with the classical strains of Mozart.

Along with some avant-garde repertoire, Marciano stresses, much of the traditional classical fare this year is being performed by rising stars, reflecting the festival’s push toward finding inventive approaches to classical repertoire. He cites the performance given on March 6 by three musicians in their 20s – British pianist Oliver Poole and Armenian violinist and cellist Hrachya Avanessyan and Narek Haknazaryan – which consisted of three trios by classical German and Austrian composers.

“I chose the program,” he confides. “And you know why? I wanted to show that this very classic program can be very fresh as well. You see Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms [and think] ‘Oh my God, it’s gonna be a tough night.’ And then you have these three guys who make you say ‘It’s finished already? I want more.’”

The response to this year’s more varied program has been overwhelmingly positive, says Marciano, in spite of some doubts as to the Lebanese audience’s reaction. “I have to say I thought that they were very much into conservative and traditional things,” Marciano confides, “but from the reactions ... I have to say that I think that probably something is changing.

“I think that we have to give a chance to them to decide,” he adds. “I feel that maybe they were conservative and traditional only because the right kind of innovation was not proposed to them. ... It’s always very important to know what the public would like, but also it’s very important to make the public acknowledge what they could like.”

The team has also made a major change to the festival’s role in the community. For the first time this year Al-Bustan is focusing not only on entertaining, but educating.

Poole, for example, spent a week in Lebanon, giving two performances at Al-Bustan, Marciano says, but he also played at the Children’s Cancer Center, as well as giving master classes to young pianist in villages and cities around Lebanon.

“Salvatore Accardo, one of the best violinists in the world, came with his orchestra,” he adds, “and they did an open rehearsal the day before the concert for students. ... We are starting to interact and make a contribution on the educational side. And we will do it more and more.

“I think it’s very important,” he continues, “first to build up new public, and second because any musical institution, even private ones like Al-Bustan, [have] a duty to make a contribution to education and developing the knowledge of music.”

Marciano is aware that not everyone will embrace the festival’s increasingly contemporary approach to classical works – which in one instance included the conductor opening a performance by emitting a burst of industrial noise from an electric drill, with which he conducted the opening bars in place of baton.

The director likens the program to a wine list at a Michelin-starred restaurant, in which quality is assured, but variety is the key to catering for every taste. Al-Bustan’s gradually diversifying program aims to cover all the options, he says – it is up to the audience members to decide what they wish to sample.

Festival Al-Bustan continues until March 27, culminating with the Verdi Gala Concert, conducted by Marciano. For more information see





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