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French Version

Al-Bustan plays no favorites when it comes to performers

Thirteenth edition of festival attracts a stable of world-class talent - with no cancellations

"I'm most interested in the construction of the festival as a whole," says Myrna Bustani. "All these concerts and performers fit together. Like a crossword puzzle."

The creative force behind the Al-Bustan Festival, Bustani isn't playing favorites when it comes to the performers that will converge on Beit Mery in February and March.

Now in its 13th year, the month-long event has become an institution among Lebanese aficionados of "classical" music - especially the more melodic music of the better-known composers of the baroque, classical and romantic periods.

Given its musical tastes, Al Bustan is always generous to the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This year it will redouble its affections with a "mostly Mozart" program - adding its voice to the international homage accompanying the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth.

The performers that will take to the boards of the Emile Bustani auditorium - and at the festival's ancillary venues in the Mountain and Beirut - range from orchestras and mass choirs, to chamber ensembles, to duets and soloists.

The festival will open on February 22 with the eight-person Vienna Chamber Soloists, performing their "Very Viennese" program of works by Mozart and Beethoven.

The repertoire of Mozart work to be performed through the rest of the festival varies from individual arias to masses to operas. The staging of "Cos“ Fan Tutte" and "The Abduction from the Seraglio" will be straight period-costume affairs, featuring the Warsaw Chamber Opera. More unconventional is "The Flute Under Construction," a more comic rendition of "The Magic Flute" by the French ensemble Les Grooms.

Another unexpected expression of Mozart will be provided on 16 March when three veterans of the Cairo Opera - soprano Mona Rafla, tenor Mohammad Abu al-Kheir and baritone Raouf Zaidan - will perform a selection of Mozart arias and duets in Arabic.

Al-Bustan has proven a remarkably resilient festival. Last spring, for instance, was for most Lebanese a time of political ferment and anxiety rather than high culture. From its mountain aerie in Beit Mery, though, Al-Bustan thrived unscathed.

Bustani is equally bullish about her 2006 program, noting that she's had no problem attracting a stable of world-class talent and suffered no cancellations - at least so far. She acknowledges, though, that preparing a mostly Mozart festival in the 250th anniversary year was a bit of a challenge.

"We had to book the Warsaw Chamber Opera two years ahead of time. We booked the Prague Chamber Choir three years ago. Most of our other performers we contacted a year in advance, as usual."

Bustani is particularly pleased to have these two acts at this year's festival. "You know the Salzburg Festival is boasting that they're staging all of Mozart's stage works this year. The Warsaw Chamber Opera has been doing this for 30 years. I love their work because, being a company, they work together year round.

"This year we're pairing the Warsaw Chamber Opera with the Prague Chamber Choir. This will be the first time they've ever worked together.

"Actually the Prague Chamber Choir will serve as our house choir this year, staying with us for 20 days. Aside from the "Requiem," "The Coronation Mass" and "Missa Brevis," they will perform three additional Mozart concerts. One of them is a very interesting program that assembles the credos of 20 Mozart masses."

One of the more high-profile acts the festival will host this year is the U.K. a cappella act the Swingle Singers. "The Swingle Singers performed in Beirut in the late 60s or early 70s," says Bustani. "I forget when exactly. I don't know who arranged it but the venue they performed in was the Emile Bustani Auditorium. So their concerts here will be a reprise for them.

"Their performances here will be a bit of the comeback for the Swingles. A generation gap has developed between the audience who knew them in the 60s and 70s and their new audience," she added.

Les Grooms' "The Flute Under Construction" continues Al-Bustan's fondness for bringing at least one light-hearted performance each year.

"Well we haven't managed to bring a comic act for each of the 13 years of the festival, of course, but for the last four or five years, yes.

"People think that classical music has to be terribly serious stuff. You can never apply the word serious to Mozart. 'Tragic,' at times, 'sad' at others, but serious? We want to show our audiences that classical music can be fun, especially Mozart. There's humor, so much amusement, in his work."

Beirut 09-01-2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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