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Fadia Tomb El-Hage (contralto)
Fragments Ensemble, Beirut Oriental Ensemble
rec. April 2016 – June 2020, Andenne, Belgium and Beirut, Lebanon
Translations of song texts provided. ORLANDO OR0042 [56:49 + 56:11]
Lebanon has long been a meeting-place of East and West, a crossroads between Europe and Western Asia. Culturally speaking, it has absorbed influences of many kinds – whether when dominated by foreign powers, from the Phoenicians to the Ottoman Empire and the French or when a variety of émigrés and refugees have become an important presence in the population. One striking individual episode deserves mention, that involving Fakhr al-Din II, who was accepted, in 1591 (when he was 19) by the Ottoman rulers of Lebanon as a man who could control much of the country for them. However, he began to act in ways that troubled them. He formed an alliance with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1608 and also built up a stronger army. His increasing independence of mind angered the Ottomans and in 1613 they forced him into exile. He was initially hosted at the Medici court of Duke Cosimo II for two years and then spent three years in Spanish-ruled Sicily and Naples. Hopes of military support were not fulfilled but when, in 1618, he felt it safe to return to Lebanon he brought with him many ideas and influences from Renaissance Italy and arranged for European architects, engineers and others to work in the country. Before long, the Ottomans again perceived him as a danger, not least because by 1631 he had exerted control over much of modern Lebanon, Syria and Palestine; the Ottomans sent large armies against him, defeating him in 1633, capturing him in the following year and executing him in Constantinople in 1635. (See T.J. Gorton, Renaissance Emir: a Druze Warlord atthe Court of the Medici, 2013).
The result of the country’s history has been a culture marked by paradox – both Christian and Islamic, Eastward and Western looking, both traditional and modern – and of links and interaction between the terms of these and other paradoxes.
The sense of cultural intensity, the containing both of pressures that are divisive and instincts that work towards the cultural transcendence of social divisions is audible on this lavishly-presented two-disc set. In her contribution (‘Convivent Journeys’) to the multilingual (Arabic, French, English and German) book of 144 pages, singer Fadia Tomb El-Hage writes “The literary opulence and musical diversity that characterize this album, called MASĀRĀT (Journeys), mirror, much as Lebanon is, a mosaic of traditions and cultures. This spells out why authors and composers almost exclusively from this country have been included therein. Orient and Occident, the traditional and the contemporary, the melodic and the atonal, the classical and the dialectal, all come together in convivence, cultivating a rich exchange of colors, tones, modes, rhythms, and harmonies”. El-Hage’s use of the words ‘convivent’ and ‘convivence’ seems to draw an implicit analogy between Lebanon and mediaeval Spain (more specifically, medieval Andalucia). The two words echo the Spanish term La Convivencia; at its most limited the Spanish means co-existence or cohabitation. However, since the work of the historian and philologist Américo Castro in the first half of the Twentieth Century it has been used to designate the period of Spanish history between the Eighth Century and 1492 (the expulsion of the Jews) when the three religions/cultures of Spain, the Christians, the Jews and the Moors, lived in relative harmony side-by-side in a relationship which was, culturally speaking, very productive. This is a vision of things which can readily be over-idealised, but which at certain times, in certain places, was very real. There is a very accessible and stimulating discussion of the issues in a marvelous book by the late Maria Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Mediaeval Spain (2003), a book written (in part) in response to the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. Neither Andalucia nor Lebanon have, of course, been enduring utopias, both having gone through periods of war and destruction. But both stand as exemplars of a time and place where a multicultural society could turn its differences into cultural riches.
Contralto Fadia Tomb El-Hage is the one constant presence on these two discs. She was born in Beirut. By the age of 14 she was singing professionally – performing Lebanese songs. She went on to act in theatre, TV and film. After being awarded a degree in Psychology in Beirut, she undertook training as an opera singer at the Richard Strauss Conservatory (The University of Music and Performing Arts) in Munich. She based herself in Europe for some years, working with ensembles such as Vox, Kremerata Baltica and Ars Nova, singing repertoire from the mediaeval to the contemporary. Later, she spent more time back in Beirut, being wholly competent in the traditions of Arabian music, too. She consistently worked in contexts where European and Arabian music met as, for example, in a recording by the Saraband Ensemble of Vladimir Ivanoff, The Arabian Passion according to J.S. Bach (Jaro 4294-2, 2009) in which she was a featured soloist. Her background and range of experience very clearly make her the perfect artist to lead a project such as this.
Masārārat presents 19 varied pieces by 15 different composers, all of whom are of Lebanese origin or have important connections with Lebanon. They range from Toufic Succar to Joëlle Khoury. Succar, born in 1922; first studied music in Beirut and then in Paris (with Messiaen) and was one of the pioneers of a distinctive Lebanese idiom of Western classical music, often using Arabic modes in his work. He was also Director of the National Higher Conservatory of Music in Beirut. Khoury was born in 1963. She left Lebanon in the 1980s, soon after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, travelling to the USA, where she took a degree in Economics and Musicology. After the Civil War she spent some years back in Beirut, studying Philosophy and piano and teaching at the American University in the city and the National Conservatory. Her compositions have affinities with the contemporary avant-garde in the classical music of the West and she has also written and worked extensively in the field of jazz. She wrote an Arabic operatic monodrama (called, in English, Dream She Is) for Fadia Tomb El-Hage, which was premiered in 2008. There is a useful entry on Khoury in Compositeurs Libanaise XXe and XXI siècle, by Zeina Saleh Kayali and Vincent Roquès, Paris, 2011.
Much of the music on these CDs was commissioned by Fadia Tomb El-Hage, in association with Quart de ton, a non-profit Belgian organization which exists to promote contemporary artistic creation, especially that which is multidisciplinary or tends to develop international links. On some tracks, El-Hage is accompanied by an ensemble called Fragments, nicely described as a “variable geometry ensemble”, i.e. it is a ‘pool’ of instrumentalists which can be drawn on for whatever specific music requires (here, those involved in different pieces include two violinists, a pianist, violist, cellist, percussionist, accordionist, flautist, bassist and saxophonist). Based in Belgium, Fragments was established in 2004. On other tracks El-Hage is accompanied by members of the Beirut Oriental Ensemble, a similarly flexible ensemble whose members include, on this disc, musicians playing the ud, the qanun (a kind of zither), the violin, the cello, the accordion, the double bass and percussion instruments.
Preferences as regards individual pieces on these discs will, I suspect, be very subjective and personal given the range of idioms represented. I must confess that my likes and dislikes are conditioned by my having (initially courtesy of my Iranian wife) some modest experience of Middle Eastern music and my having read many translations of Arabic poetry, including work by some of the poets set on these discs. For some years my wife and I had a close friendship with the late Khairat El-Saleh, originally Palestinian, but educated in Beirut, who was an accomplished painter and ceramicist, as well as a poet in Arabic, French and English. She taught us both much about Lebanon and its arts. I have, therefore, in coming to listen to these discs, a degree of readiness which not all listeners will bring to the experience.
The first thing to say is that Fadia Tomb El-Hage has a fine voice, weighty when it needs to be but never ponderous and possessed of an impressive range of pitch and colour. Her diction, so far as I can judge across the various languages in which she sings, is first-rate. After several hearings of the whole set, the tracks which have stood out for me, and to which I have most often returned include Succar’s ‘Atšān’ – a plea for the ‘water’ of love, setting an anonymous text – El-Hage’s voice here at its most plaintive, is accompanied by violin and piano. Although I am mentioning these pieces in the order in which they appear on the discs, it is only fair to say that, above all, I have been entranced by Marcel Khalif’s ‘Al-qitār’, in which El-Hage sings a text – (less overtly political than many of his poems) by one of the great Arab poets of modern times Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian who spent some years in Lebanon – with an improvised accompaniment on the ud. This is a hauntingly memorable piece. Charbel Rouhana’s ‘Wafā al-‘aşāfīr’ contains some beautiful instrumental writing for an instrumental ensemble made up of ud, qanun, violin, viola, cello, accordion and percussion, framing a setting of a charming and witty poem by Ounsi El-Hage (1937-2014), a kind of apologia for his abandonment of traditional strict metres and his adoption of free verse, which ends thus: “what can I do if God created me/with a soft spot for freedom?/So I lost track of metres,/and they of me,/And I just won the birds’ loyalty.” (translation by Youssef Kamal El-Hage). I haven’t heard any of Joëlle Koury’s classical compositions, but I have been impressed by her compositions and piano work in jazz collections such as Is it So? (2005) and Beirut Jazz (2020). Her composition ‘Vers le soleil bleu’, which closes the first CD of Masārāt, is an intriguing, jazz-influenced setting of a poem by Nadia Tuéni (1935-1983). Tuéni, daughter of a Lebanese diplomat and a French Algerian mother was bilingual, but seems to have written her poetry exclusively in French. She was an impressive poet who died of cancer at the age of 47; she is still too little-known. Though far from being hermetic, Khoury’s setting of ‘Vers le soleil bleu’ is harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated and gets a persuasive reading from Fadia Tomb El-Hage and an instrumental ensemble made up of saxophone, violin, cello, piano, bass and percussion. Singer and ensemble respond well to both the power and the intimacy of this work. Another text by Nadia Tuéni is set (by Gabriel Yared) in the work which opens CD2, ‘Baalbeck’. Baalbek is famous both for its spectacular Roman remains and for its annual cultural festival, a celebration of the arts of Lebanon and the world. The Roman temples of Bacchus and Jupiter are often used as settings for performances in the festival which began in 1956 and has been held annually since in July and August (save for interruptions due to political upheaval, regional wars and pandemics). In the text set by Gabriel Yared, one finds the lines “When the sun tumbles down like a tall dead tree/And the moon blossoms,/The roads of Baalbek smell the blueness of dances;” and “Beneath each column a sleeping star/Explodes into two novae on the peak of noon” (translation by Youssef Kamal El-Hage). El-Hage sings the opening line unaccompanied, before the piano enters. Yared’s setting represents the shape of the poem very well in the arc of his music. This is a very sensitive setting, which Fadia Tomb El-Hage articulates beautifully. Gabriel Yared will, I feel sure, be known to some readers as composer of the music for Anthony Mingella’s film, The English Patient (1996), which won him the Oscar for Best Original Score. His many other film scores include The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Possession (2002) and Judy (2019).
Another track I have found fascinating is ‘Das Lied der Seele’ a setting (by Houtaf Khoury) of a German translation by Ursula Assaf-Nowak and Simon Assaf of a text by Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), best known as the writer of The Prophet (1932). Gibran’s literary work (he was also a painter) might be thought emblematic of Lebanon’s syncretic culture. Gibran’s parents were Maronite Christians and values and symbols he learned from that tradition were later fused with ideas and images from Persian Sufism, the work of Carl Jung, the imagery and mythology of William Blake, the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche and much else. His words, heard here in German and set for voice and piano feel like an extension of German Romantic poetry. Of the composer Houtaf Khoury, although he studied in the Ukraine and certainly absorbed some eastern European influences, it has been justly said (in Kayali and Roquès, Compositeurs Libanaise XXe and XXI siècle,Paris, 2011, p.183) that “Lebanon is always present” in his music. Indeed, his vocal works have included settings of texts by Darwish, in Cantata (1993) and Nadia Tuéni, in L’Étranger (2003). Here his setting of Gibran (albeit in German) is quietly sophisticated, though altogether unfussy. It serves the text well, though I find the writing for the piano more memorable than the vocal lines.
Those who have read this far will surely have been struck by how many of the Lebanese figures mentioned are active in more than one artistic medium. My final choice of a particularly interesting work, ‘Where is Light?’ brings together two multimedia practitioners of distinction. In it, Zad Moultaka, composer, pianist, painter, draughtsman, sculptor, photographer and creator of installations, sets a brief poem (in English) by Etel Adnan (born in 1925, poet, novelist, dramatist, painter and weaver of tapestries). Adnan’s poem acknowledges that “this morning” brought light and that tomorrow there will be light, but closes by asking “Where is light?”. Fittingly, Moultaka’s setting has a clouded, mysterious quality, with El-Hage’s voice at moments almost hidden by the sounds of flute, violin, viola, piano and cello. The resulting music has a restrained but somewhat troubling power – as though the very need to ask the closing question – “Where is Light?” – expresses a fear that we cannot assume that it will always reappear. The string writing of Moultaka, who studied at the Paris Conservatoire, has, at times, a quasi-spectral quality.
Through artists such as Farid Mansour (1929-2010) and Walid Raad (born 1967), writers such as Gibran, Amin Malouf (born 1949) and Suheil Bushrui (1929-2015), architects like Joseph Philippe Karan (1923-1976), Assem Salam (1924-1952) and Nabil Gholam (born 1962), as well as composers such as Wadia Sabra (1876-1952), Bechara El-Khoury (born 1957) and several of the composers represented on Masārāt, Lebanon, despite the disruptions of war and violence, has made a remarkable contribution to the international cultural scene quite out of proportion to its population (around 6, 825,000 in 2020) and its marginality with regard to both the USA and Europe, where international reputations are usually made.
As such it is a pleasure to welcome such a well-performed, richly varied and rewarding conspectus of the musical situation in Lebanon in recent years as is provided on these two well-documented discs.
CD 1 Toufic SUCCAR (1922-2017)
1.‘Atšān [Thirsty] (1994) [3:14] Mansour RAHBANI (1925-2009)
2. Aturā yadkurūnahū [Would they still recall it?] (2004) [2:57] Ghadii RAHBANI (b.1960]
3. B’albak [Baalbek] (2015) [6:40] Mona A. AHDAB (b.1966)
4. À la fin de cela (2016) [5:07] Iyad KANAAN (b.1971)
5. Salātu Mirā [Mera’s Prayer] (2014) [7:30] Marcel KHALIFÉ (b.1950)
6. Al-qitār [The train] (2000) [3:01]
Violaine PRINCE (b.1958)
7. Pater (2016) [4:34] Charbel ROUHANA (b.1965)
8. Wafā al-‘aşāfīr [The bird’s loyalty] (2004/20) [5:54] Samir TOMB (b.1955)
9. Atfāl [Children] (2018) [6:25]
10. Lh’aī’ā [The Truth] (2014) [5:35] Joëlle KHOURY (b.1963)
11. Vers le soleil bleu (2018) [5:25]
CD2 Gabriel YARED (b.1949)
1.Baalbeck (2015) [3:34] Naji HAKIM (b.1955)
2. Aš-šawqu ila˘s-samā’ [Passion for heaven) (2016) [3:34] Houtaf KHOURRY (b.1967)
3. Sumer (2016) [8:00] Houtaf KHOURRY
4. Das Lied der Seele (2006-19) [11:48] Bushra EL-TURK (b.1982)
5. TIK TAK (2006) [Ticktok] (2006) [1:41] Joëlle KHOURY
6. Zarqā’a˘š-šamsu [Blue, the sun!] (2016) [6:42] Zad MOULTAKA (b.1967)
7.Where is Light? (2019) [5:41] Abdallah EL-MASRI (b.1962)
8. Maġnāt (Ode) (1967) [14:14]