BBC Music Magazine
Simon Broughton heads to the Middle East to enjoy a vibrant festival in the heart of one of the region’s most historic and beautiful cities
Simon Broughton visits Beirut, Lebanon
There are many reasons music festivals are memorable. Sometimes it’s superb artists, an astonishing location or programming that sheds new light. The Al Bustan Festival in Beirut has all of these.
In the Saint-elie Church I listened to Bach’s St John Passion with British soloists and an Estonian choir and period-instrument orchestra, its plangent oboes cutting through the lively acoustic. ★ere was a Protestant masterpiece of the German Baroque in a Maronite Church (Lebanese Catholic) only 150 miles from where Christ’s Passion itself took place. Jerusalem might be only 150 miles as the crow flies, but to get there from Beirut would be 1,800 miles by road as the border between Lebanon and Israel is closed.
Anyone who has travelled in the Levant or wider Middle East will know faiths and cultures are pressed hugger-mugger against each other with layers of history one beneath the other. Right in the heart of Beirut an Orthodox church stands right next to a Maronite one right next to a vast (new) mosque. On one side are remains of Roman baths and a pavement, on the other are the French colonial buildings of Place de l’etoile or Nejmeh Square, lovingly reconstructed in honey-coloured stone.
Most of this central area of Beirut has been reconstructed or redeveloped since the brutal 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990. Now, after much banking and commercial investment, the city is safe and very much open for business.