Egyptian composer and conductor Hisham Gabr will open the Baalbeck International Festival in Lebanon on 20 July, with a composition combining songs by Oum Kathoum.
Taking place at the Roman Temple of Bacchus, the festival runs until 18 August with events such as Rossini’s Stabat Mater (27 July), Matthieu Chedid with a special appearance of Ibrahim Maaouf (4 August), Illa Iza, a musical play by Georges Khabbaz (10 and 11 August), From Tarab to Jazz featuring Jahida Wehbe and Elie Maalouf (17 August), and Ben Happer and The Innocent Criminals (18 August).
The Baalbeck Festival is the oldest and the most prestigious cultural festival in the Middle East.
“The festival was launched in 1956. Initially, the festival was managed by people on a mission to promote culture and tourism in Lebanon. They aspired to nurture an enticing artistic environment rooted in cross-cultural exchange. They also strove to establish a unique setting for innovative performances by local, regional and acclaimed international talents. Soon the festival became an annual highlight on the calendar every summer, gaining an international reputation and attracting big names on the music, theatre and dance scenes,” the festival’s website reads.
Dubbed “Baalbeck Remembers Oum Kalthoum,” the opening event aims at honouring the artistry of the Arab world’s most renowned singer.
Arranged by Gabr, the 90-minute piece will consist of two long medleys, a run through the famed songs sung by the woman popularly known as the Star of the Orient.
“The medleys will include Seerat El-Hob (Love’s Name), Enta Omry (You Are My Life), Fakkarouni (They Reminded Me), Hayyart Albi (You Confused My Heart), Alf Laila Wa Laila (One Thousand and One Nights), Aghadan Alkak (Am I Going To Meet You Tomorrow),” Gabr told Ahram Online, adding that the festival’s organisers had given him a free hand in the choice of compositions.
While Gabr works on the arrangement and will conduct the orchestra in Baalbeck, two renowned singers will perform during the evening, Marwa Nagy and Mai Farouk. Both have much experience in performing Oum Kalthoum
Having mainly symphonic experience, Gabr added that though he has also collaborated with Oriental musicians before, he finds work on Oum Kalthoum’s repertoire especially interesting. His posts on social media underscore the special relation that he created with the music and the lyrics.
“Throughout all my life I worked mainly with the Western classical music repertoire, which is polyphonic. Oriental music is monophonic and I was never strongly attracted to it. But Oum Kalthoum is another story; a story of greatness,” Gabr commented to Ahram Online.
"Oum Kalthoum has the ability to put audience under her spell, she can make you happy, angry, in love; she can make you cry. She has a great power.”
The composer explained that as he works on the material, he is not trying to create anything new, but rather benefit from the music at hand and shed light on its beauty with several creative procedures.
“As I compose the arrangement, I'm trying to keep in my mind that it's all about Oum Kalthoum, not me, not anyone else,” he said.
The orchestra performing during the evening will include over 50 musicians representing players from both Western and Oriental orchestras.
“Most of the musicians are from the symphonic orchestra. It is in the first and second violins sections that I decided to choose the musicians working in Oriental ensembles. It is for their ability to play quarter tones which are characteristic to Oum Kalthoum’s repertoire and to all Arabic music,” Gabr clarified.
Oum Kalthoum herself performed at the Baalbeck International Festival more than once, in 1966, 1968 and 1970.
Gabr was born in 1972. He graduated from the Cairo Conservatory where he studied flute under Professor Ines Abdel-Dayem, the current Egyptian minister of culture.
Gabr has composed music and conducted concerts in Egypt and internationally and also served as director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Centre between 2014 and 2017.
When he joined the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s, Gabr was the youngest member of the orchestra and still a student.
He later transitioned to conducting, studying in Egypt, France and the USA under such renowned musicians as Christophe Mueller, Dominique Ruits, Jean-Jacques Werner, Chris Kim and Ahmed El-Saedi.
Earlier this year, Gabr was awarded Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a high recognition from the French government, one that was also awarded to other Egyptian names such as Naguib Mahfouz, Gamal El-Ghitani, Inji Aflatoun and Alaa Al-Aswany.
The festival held a fundraising event with a cine-concert by Khaled Mouzanar on 8 July.
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