Al Bustan's night at the Museum.
BEIRUT: Museums are more often lauded for effective climate control systems than superb acoustics. It's always exciting, then, to have an opportunity to see how well live, unamplified music can thrive among the old stones and other artifacts of bygone eras. "Music at the Museum," as this concert was called, was part of the program of Al Bustan. Periodically Beit Mery's best-loved festival of (mostly European) music makes forays beyond the walls of the hotel that shares its name. Tuesday's playlist of classical music saw the festival take possession of the National Museum -- Mathaf, in common parlance.
Alexander Buzlov and Veronika Ilinskaya, the featured musicians, weren't playing reconstructed Greco-Roman tunes on period instruments but a program of sonatas bridging Europe's Classical and Romantic eras, on cello and piano, respectively.
Though the Mathaf audience was relatively intimate, the acoustic challenge was accentuated somewhat by the fact that seating must run around the impressive floor-mounted Hellenistic mosaic that greets visitors upon entering the museum.
Fortunately Buzlov and Ilinskaya's rendition of Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69, the opening number, was robust enough to carry the 10 meters or so separating the players from the back rows.
This performance marked the cellist and pianist's first collaboration, a festival informant confided to The Daily Star. Their rendition of the Beethoven was brisk and spirited, enunciated with the clockwork precision of musicians who may be new to one another but know the music intimately.
Next up was Schubert's Sonata in A minor, D821. More casual listeners to the classical and romantic canon may find the Beethoven and the Schubert to be cut from the same compositional cloth. Experts and aficionados of the period will attest, however, that the tonal and melodic tropes of these pieces are wildly divergent from one another.
The most evident difference here was the somewhat more passionate performance the work drew from Buzlov's cello. When Schubert calls upon his musicians to pick up the tempo partway through the piece, the lovely sonorities begin to verge on the muscular.
Buzlov and Ilinskaya concluded the sonata with the pinpoint precision of a famished mosquito on a sultry summer evening. A fusillade of "Bravo!" arose from those assembled.
Schubert done, most of Al Bustan's audience left the museum's main hall, knowing the interval was nigh.
Among the many fragments occupying the Mathaf's north gallery, one piece stands out. The exhibit tags of most of the surrounding works combine self-evident titles and vague provenance -- "Statue, Tyr, Roman period," say, or "Mosaic, Byblos, Byzantine period."
The piece called "Tribune," captures the eye because the ensemble of bas-relief figures that make up its frieze are relatively intact and, though the exhibit tag is coy as to the work's function -- it served as an altar, it seems -- its apparent provenance is as solid as it is antique: the Sanctuary of Eshmun, the god of healing, Bustan al-Shaykh, near Sidon, ca 350 B.C.
The concise certitude of the exhibit tag is strangely satisfying. So when the text uncharacteristically goes on to describe the two scenes the frieze depicts -- an upper register of lounging Olympians and a lower register of mortal dancers and musicians -- you ape the good empiricist.
Occupying center stage of the immortal register are two figures.
To the right, the text suggests, stands Athena, helmet in hand. Glancing up, you find this figure does indeed appear to be holding something resembling an Iron Age battle helmet.
To the left, the National Museum's cue card explains, Apollo holds a cithera ("cithara" or "kithara") the lyre-like instrument frequently captured in Greco-Roman art. The ages have been less kind to the bas-relief of "Apollo" than they have that of "Athena," defacing him and claiming his right arm south of the elbow.
More intriguing than Apollo's mangled appearance is his outfit. A floor-length, gown-like affair, cinched at the waist, it makes the purportedly male god of music appear more feminine than Athena, whose attire is about as girlish as can be expected for a deity who frequents battlefields.
Surely, you blink, the confidently concise exhibit tag can't be wrong. No doubt artisanal conventions for depicting "male" and "female" deities were more fluid 2300-odd years ago than they are today.
More striking than Apollo's fashion sense, though, is his instrument. Though the unwieldy thing he's shouldering no doubt is meant to depict a cithara, to the 21st-century eye it could also pass for the door of a sub-compact automobile.
Its likeness seems particularly clumsy when compared to the cithara wielded by the mortal musician in the procession just below "Apollo."
Different craftsmen probably worked on the altar's mortal and immortal registers. If so, the artisan in charge of the human figures and their instruments appears to have been more skilled than the one overseeing the depiction of the gods.
Maybe this skillful depiction of mortal movement reflects the artisans' atheism? Perhaps, laboring under a strict deadline, the craftsmen were forced to submit their work before it was finished properly -- leaving onlookers with the impression that Apollo's sister is strumming the door of a Smart Car for eternity.
Any arts journalist would likely empathize.
An amplified male voice instructs Al Bustan's audience to take their seats. The performance will resume in three minutes.
Buzlov and Ilinskaya conclude "Music at the Museum" with a spirited performance of Brahms' Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38.
A delicate work, which rises from dignified melancholy through halting recovery to conclude with an energetic, if not exactly optimistic, Allegro, the Brahms was somehow fitting for the decorous surroundings of the Mathaf.
Marked by an unerring exactitude, Buzlov and Ilinskaya's performance at the museum was loudly lauded, prompting a much-appreciated encore.
Then it was done.
For more information on Al Bustan Festival, see http://albustanfestival.com
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