BEIRUT: International diplomacy can be fraught, awkward, and deeply insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved. Rarely is it beautiful. Rarely, in the span of a single evening, are our differences so thoroughly transcended through art or music that even minor gaffes are celebrated as overtures of stunning generosity.
The Beautiful Harmony Concert for Peace and Love, held at AUB’s Assembly Hall Wednesday evening, was nothing less than a shock and awe campaign of goodwill. Organized by the Korean Embassy and the Lebanese Culture Ministry, the concert featured the Beautiful Mind Charity Ensemble, a group of Korean professionals who travel the world doing outreach programs and performances.
The evening got off to an inauspicious start. Several people answered their ringing phones during the Korean ambassador’s speech. Tasked with giving a speech on behalf of the absent minister, a Culture Ministry bureaucrat in an excellent suit uttered at least two “Gangnam Style” jokes.
The typically restless Lebanese audience was first stunned into silence by the virtuosity of the performers. It was then bewitched by their charisma, and utterly won over by the purity of their message.
Standing ovations began to erupt three songs into the concert. By the time the giant projection of the Lebanese and Korean flags coming together over the words “We Are Friends” appeared, the roar of applause barely drowned out the plopping of the hundred hearts that fell to the floor and rolled down the aisle.
The program opened to the enchanting swells of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 1, a safely classical and tightly executed piano-violin-cello collaboration. Spanish guitarist Jung Shil Suh joined the ensemble shortly afterward for two slightly more contemporary pieces.
Next, two women wearing colorful, full-skirted hanbok took the stage to perform selections from “Chunhyangga” and “Heungbuga,” two famous Korean operas sung in the traditional Pansori tradition. The lyrics, helpfully translated into English, were projected onto either side of the stage.
Pansori prima donna Soo-Jung Chae, who proved an audience favorite, sang this four-century-old poetry in such soaring, redolent tones that well-coiffed Beiruti women one row over started singing along, though they betrayed no evidence of knowing Korean.
The Pansori was followed by a short video highlighting some of Beautiful Mind’s work, including music therapy for people with special needs. The stage was then given over to Kyeong-Min Kim, a young man with cerebral palsy who played a flawless rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 and an original composition titled “Beautiful Memory.”
Speaking through a translator, Kim told the audience that when he first started trying to play the piano, he could only use his fists due to his condition, which affects muscle control.
“I could not use my fingers at all, but I did not give up because I had a dream and a passion,” he told the crowd. “If you have something to achieve do not give up, keep trying!”
For the finale, the entire ensemble took the stage, half of them wearing traditional Korean outfits, and the other half in Lebanese-inspired costumes that would not have been out of place in an early Fairouz music video. They proceeded to play an adapted dabke tune they had specially arranged as the audience clapped along.
“Music is a universal language,” the gold turban-clad cellist II-Hwan Bai told the audience. “And I believe music and love have a special power to heal.”
The audience enthusiastically agreed, erupting in cheers.
It is impossible to remain cynical in the face of such manic sincerity. Nearby, two young women, one Lebanese and one Korean, could be heard comparing the similarities between Arab Qanoun and Korean Gayageum.
“We have more strings,” said the young Korean, “probably 12.”
“Ah, yes,” replied the Lebanese. “Very similar.”