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Baalbeck 1959: Music, geopolitics and "beautiful people"


Sixty years ago, in August 1959, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was on the program of the Baalbeck Festival. It was the first time that an American symphonic orchestra performed in Lebanon, and only two others have done so since (the Pittsburgh Orchestra in 1964 and the Cincinnati Orchestra in 1966). This special musical occasion, however, also had political elements, some of which remained hidden from the general public until recently. A few years ago, the Leon Levy Foundation put the archives of the New York Philharmonic online, creating an opportunity to revisit American involvement during the early days of the Baalbeck Festival and to shed light on the music, beautiful people and geopolitics that went on behind the scenes.

A festival turning West

After devoting its first season exclusively to French theater, an executive committee was established with the aim of expanding the Baalbeck Festival’s programming for its 1956 run. From the beginning, the international press foresaw that the festival would become a new battleground for rival sides in the Cold War. A New York Times article published in July 1956 noted the participation of Hamburg’s NDR Symphony Orchestra, Jean Marchat and Robert Atkins’ theater companies, the participation of American pianist Aldo Mancinelli as a guest soloist of the NDR and the presence of Belgian-American conductor Leon Barzin, who led two out of five concerts. The Times spoke of a "Western cultural counter offensive" following the success of the Russian ballet and the Chinese Opera in Beirut.

Less than two months later, the US Congress passed the International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act. Under the leadership of President Eisenhower, the act directed American diplomatic efforts to use all possible means to promote the artistic status and reputation of the United States abroad. For several years, it led to the best orchestras, jazzmen and dance companies traveling the world under the auspices of the American National Theatre and Academy.

In the summer of 1957, Charles Munch, the French musical director of the Boston Symphony, was the guest conductor for three of the Orchestre de l'Academia Santa Cecilia di Roma’s six concerts in Baalbeck. Carlos Moseley, the New York Philharmonic's director of communications, who was invited to attend the concerts by the festival’s organizing committee, narrated his journey in a praiseworthy article published in the New York Times in September 1957. Moseley also promoted and spoke highly of the festival in other American newspapers and magazines such as Variety, Musical Courier, the Boston Globe and others.

This push for cultural diplomacy accompanied the Eisenhower Doctrine, which was adopted in January 1957 and promised military and economic aid to countries in the Middle East that “decided to resist communism”. Lebanese president Camille Chamoun was one of its beneficiaries.

1958: The Wasted Year

In February 1958, Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab Republic under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Tensions soon escalated between the pro-Soviet entity, which found support among part of the Lebanese population, and the officially pro-American Lebanese government.

At the beginning of that year, the Baalbeck festival was highly advertised. On the program: the Orchestra of the Juilliard School of New York. But disappointments soon followed. At the beginning of April, Aimee Kettaneh, president of the festival’s committee, wrote a letter to Moseley that strongly condemned the Juilliard Orchestra for withdrawing from the festival for “non musical” reasons. That same month, as danger loomed on the horizon, Lebanon was still at peace and rolled out six days of lavish entertainment for King Paul, Queen Frederika, Prince Constantine and Princess Sophie of Greece.

But the peace and tranquility soon ended following the assassination of the journalist Nassib Metni. Baalbeck’s festival was cancelled. The Iraqi revolution broke out on July 14, resulting in the overthrow of the king. The events prompted President Chamoun (whose mandate was supposed to end in August) to call on the US Sixth Fleet to come to the rescue. On July 15, US marines landed south of Beirut to counter a revolution "fomented by the small hands of the Soviets, the Syrians and the Egyptians”. The showdown ended without clear winners or losers, and a new president, Fouad Shehab, was elected on July 31, 1958.

Bernstein: persona non grata

When Chamoun’s mandate ended, the Baalbeck Festival lost two of its main sponsors (Chamoun and his wife, Zalfa). But the committee pushed forward and prepared a line up for the 1959 season that featured the Rambert ballet, the Montparnasse Theater troupe and the annual "Lebanese Nights". Talks were also underway with the Chicago Symphony, but they were eventually terminated when, in March, the US State Department chose the New York Philharmonic to lead the 1959 summer tour, which included a stop in Lebanon.

The musical world in Beirut was in an uproar. The director of the Conservatoire, Lebanese-American composer, and former professor of musicology at Indiana University, Anis Fuleihan was at the forefront of it all. Fuleihan, along with his friend Carlos Moseley, monitored the project feverishly. The situation in Lebanon remained tense. There were clashes almost daily, and an appearance by De Gaulle on the news or a picture of Nasser on a streetcar could trigger a fight.

Also, the New York Philharmonic meant that Leonard Bernstein, its musical director, would be coming to Lebanon. Foreign Minister Hussein Oueini, Charles Malek’s successor, refused to welcome the famous composer and conductor to Lebanon because he was a well known supporter of Israel. Facing the potential of having serious problems, the festival’s organizing committee acquiesced. To save the event, the organizers considered turning to well known conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos or the not as well known Thomas Schippers. Finally, despite suffering from health problems, Mitropoulos was appointed to lead the two planned concerts.

Leonard Bernstein resting in Greece during the concerts of Baalbeck, confides to a friend: "What a joy not to have gone to Beirut! "

Music and Logistics

The concert’s program was worked out through endless diplomatic maneuvers and back and forth memos. The festival’s music committee, chaired by May Arida, wanted the orchestra to play Fuleihan’s Mediterranean Suite. But the orchestra suggested Prokofiev's 5th. The committee feared that the Lebanese public wouldn’t be accustomed to this type of music, and preferred to choose something from the Romantic genre: Brahms’ 2nd, 3rd or 4th (the first had already been played in Baalbeck in 1957), Schumann, Beethoven or Rachmaninov.

In New York, no one was able to get a hold of Fuleihan’s musical score sequel. Finally, because of a lack of rehearsal time, the program ended up including only part of the committee’s suggestions. Then in early May, the organizers received bad news: due to health problems, Mitropoulos would not be able to fulfill his commitments. In the following panic, Bernstein’s name came up again, and there were many questions: would the program be altered again? Would preparations be ready on time? Would the stage below the audience that the orchestra requested for better acoustics be built? If so, where should it be placed and what were its proper dimensions?

The negotiations finally ended in mid June. Thomas Schippers was appointed to conduct the concert on August 8 and assistant conductor and pianist Seymour Lipkin would conduct on August 9. It was the only concert Lipkin got to lead during the orchestra’s massive tour, comprising 50 concerts in 22 cities in Europe and Asia, including: Athens, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Salzburg, Warsaw, The Hague, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Essen, Wiesbaden, Luxembourg, Paris, Basel, Belgrade, Zagreb, Milan, Venice and, from August 22 to September 11, a series of concerts in Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad.

After finishing their concerts in Athens, the musicians arrived in Lebanon on August 7. The next day, departure for Aley was scheduled for noon. Kattaneh and her husband invited members of the Orchestra to lunch at their summer residence. In the late afternoon, tea was served at the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbeck before the last rehearsals.

The August 8 concert

At the Acropolis, the stage was set before an exedra in the altar’s court. The creme de la creme of Beirut gathered in evening wear waiting for the concert to begin. The weather was chilly, and the scent of cardamom floated on the air. Away from the din of the crowd it was silent, but soon the music of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian filtered into the night.

Coming out of a long tunnel, which had been set up as a cloakroom for the occasion, the musicians made their way to the stage to the sound of the audience’s applause. After the national anthem, Beethoven's 8th opens the program followed by excerpts from Barber's Medea. There was a short intermission before the second part of the concert, entirely dedicated to Tchaikovsky's 4th. The allegro con fuoco finale whipped the audience into a feverish state. The Orchestra was asked for an encore and ended with the dance of Stravinsky's ‘L’Oiseau de Feu’ (the Firebird).

After the concert, a few privileged guests headed to the temple of Bacchus where Robert MacClintock, the US ambassador, held a reception in honor of the orchestra and its leader, David Keizer. Thomas Schippers, with Aimee Kettaneh on his arm, received warm congratulations by the president of the organizing committee herself. Anis Fuleihan and Carlos Moseley were proud of their accomplishments. May Arida, surrounded by a few musicians, was simply radiant.

(This article was originally pubished in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 6th of July 2019)

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