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Al-Bustan's 12th festival: From vegetables to Amin Maalouf

'Music from the North' program also includes the unmissable Eveyln Glennie and the Grammy-winning Gidon Kremer

After a 2004 full with music festivals in Lebanon, 2005 has barely begun and another is on the way. The Al Bustan Festival of music and arts, the first international event of the year, announced it's crowded program Monday at the famous hotel of the same name in the mountains above Beirut.

Arguably the premier classical music event in the Levant occurring over a period of five weeks in February and March, the 12th festival's theme is "Music from the North," including sounds and musicians from Russia, the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic States, Iceland, Ireland and Scotland (see program at left).

As such Al Bustan is something of a cultural landmark in the Middle East. There is no other festival that can boast so many artists performing different artistic genres from opera to theater, tango to dance, and oriental sounds to sounds coaxed from vegetables. (That's right - on March 9 the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra will blow carved-out carrots, tap turnips, clap eggplant cymbals and twang rhubarb fibers to create an experimental sound that will eventually be made into a soup on stage for the audience to taste.)

As well as bringing music and musicians not normally accessible to audiences in the region, the Al Bustan festival does the nation of Lebanon a great cultural service by introducing both the foreign performers to Lebanese culture and the Lebanese to slices of (this year) northern European life. Indeed the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra will end the festival in late March by performing with Hungarian virtuoso violinist Barnabas Kelemen and Swedish concert pianist Peter Jablonski.

There are then a number of unmissable performances this year. Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, playing Feb. 20, must be seen to be believed. She is a master of over 1,800 instruments and has composed numerous orchestral and spatial works just for percussion. Seeing her in London a few years ago it is her strength and stamina and sheer will that explodes her music with fascinating power.

All contemporary dance lovers should check out the second visit of the Iceland Dance Company to the festival on Feb. 22-23 and their different scenes of modern life by some of today's outstanding choreographers including one based on a soccer game entitled "The Match."

One of the most exciting violinists to watch as well as hear plays Bach and Piazzolla on Feb. 23 - the internationally known, Grammy Award winning Latvian Gidon Kremer accompanied by Ukrainian percussionist Andrii Pushkarev.

The other February highlight comes over the weekend of Feb. 25 and 26. Perhaps Lebanon's most celebrated contemporary novelist, Amin Maalouf, collaborates with the world-renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho on their relatively recent opera "L'Amour De Loin." Premiering in Lebanon at Al Bustan, Saariaho composed the opera (which is reminiscent of Debussy and Messiaen) to a libretto by Maalouf. It tells of the love of a 12th century French troubadour for the beautiful Countess of Tripoli - a woman who he has never seen. The opera will be sung without performance or costume.

Worth checking in March is a performance by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland of all the Ave Marias ever composed in the Crusader Church of St. John Mark in Byblos (March 7,8).

And especially exciting will be the Russian Helikon Opera's rendering of "Peter the Great" on March 10 and 11; the young British company Sincera's contemporary set production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" - so rarely seen in Lebanon - on March 15 and 16; and three Scottish bagpipers from the Highlands on March 18.

In terms of its organization, premier global talent and variety the Al Bustan festival is unique. Whether in the world of MTV and pop culture this will translate into putting bums on seats outside of the educated or curious entertainment seeker is where the organizer's problem lies. Still, with 50 percent student discounts on all available tickets in all price ranges on the night only of every performance, they are doing everything they can to compete.

Beirut,01 10 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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