Between war and peace: Beirut’s Al Bustan Festival

Born 20 years ago out of a drive to bring classical back to Lebanon, Al Bustan Festival is now respected worldwide. Claire Ramtuhul speaks to the festival’s founder and president, veteran arts leader Myrna Bustani, on building a platform for music against the odds

Myrna Bustani’s modesty belies the scope of her achievements. Through her many guises – stateswoman, philanthropist, business leader – she has left an indelible mark upon public life in Lebanon, and is credited with restoring the cultural landscape of a country bruised by political turmoil. Thanks to Al Bustan Festival, a new generation of music lovers has been able to access excellent classical music played by some of the industry’s most skilful performers. Even so, the festival president is somewhat reticent when talking about her own success.

The daughter of Emile and Laura Bustani, both hugely influential figures in the philanthropic and business worlds, it’s unsurprising that Myrna Bustani also ventured into the same professional spheres as her parents. Indeed, power was thrust upon her when she was the only candidate to stand for Emile’s seat in the Lebanese parliament following his death in 1964. She dismisses her short term as ‘nothing much’, despite being the first woman ever to hold office in the country.

Myrna Bustani
Myrna Bustani

Being female in an arena dominated by men, she insists, never held her back. ‘Lebanon is very advanced in this matter,’ she says. ‘There are so many ladies who are leaders, doctors, businesswomen, and who have leadership roles. So it’s not such a big deal to be a woman and a leader.’ After carrying out her duties as a member of parliament for a year, Bustani turned her efforts to developing international cultural exchange, and applied her leadership capabilities to altogether more artistic pursuits. Founding the British Lebanese Association in 1980, she began to showcase the work of Lebanese creatives in London, organising and managing everything from exhibitions to classical concerts.

Just as she’d followed her parents’ path into politics and leadership, Bustani’s passion for the arts was also a result of her upbringing. Both her mother and father prized education, of which music was an integral part. ‘My mother took me to concerts every time there was one, and she used to sing and play the piano. So I became accustomed to classical music at a very young age. I played the piano from the age of six – fortunately I don’t play anymore. I would never be able to measure up to the artists we invite to the festival.’

Al Bustan Festival gardens
Al Bustan Festival gardens

But whilst these creative leanings led her to facilitate Lebanese arts abroad, the country itself was reeling from a prolonged and bloody civil war. The Israeli invasion in 1982 resulted in yet more upheaval – Lebanon’s president elect was assassinated that same year, and suicide bomber attacks by Palestinian splinter groups were a frequent occurrence. As so often happens during times of deep strife, artistic pursuits took a backseat. ‘Over the 17 years of civil war, people had forgotten about classical music,’ says Bustani. ‘The tradition of going to a concert had been lost. Those in their late teens or early twenties had never heard any classical music, just bombs and shells. So we had to correct this, and that was not easy.’

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When the country returned to relative stability in 1994, Bustani saw an opportunity to combine her musical connections with the philanthropic spirit she had inherited. And so she set about creating an event to help reinstate Lebanon’s cultural life. Using funds from the family-owned hotel located just outside Beirut, Bustani put together a varied programme featuring Indian cellist Anup Kumar Biswas, British harpist Gillian Tingay, Lebanese flautist Wissam Boustany, and the Medici String Quartet.

Concerts took place in the intimate 450-seat auditorium of the hotel, which has remained the festival’s main venue ever since. ‘It was very challenging,’ Bustani says. ‘Although we were presenting artists who were quite well-known in Europe or America, the public here didn’t recognise their names. We really had to make a huge effort.’

Since that first edition, the list of names to grace the festival’s stages continues to grow in variety and stature. Evelyn Glennie, Boris Berezovsky, and Julian Lloyd Webber are just a few of the illustrious artists to have performed at the event, which takes place every year.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja performs with Fazil Say at the 2014 festival
Patricia Kopatchinskaja performs with Fazil Say at the 2014 festival

Though the performance archive is an impressive one, Bustani points out that many artists have only gone on to become household names since performing at the festival. ‘We’ve had people like Boris Berezovsky, but when they become very big, we can’t afford them anymore. But from time to time we invite some famous names over, as we have them on friendly terms.’

In any case, Bustani seems content with the festival’s reputation for staging talent that is emerging, rather than wholly established. ‘We like discovering new artists, and finding ones who will be shining stars in a few years’ time.’ The festival has gone beyond purely classical work, staging opera, theatre, dance and jazz, and presents a country focus with each edition.

What has been Bustani’s favourite festival moment over the past two decades? ‘It was the performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, performed by Warsaw Chamber Opera. I went into the rehearsal, and was really taken aback by the music. I felt so pleased and proud that we could do Così fan tutte in Beirut.’

Bustani guardedly sketches out a few provisional details for the 2015 edition, which will be presented under the theme ‘Inspiration’. The line-up so far includes a performance by Russian violinist Sergei Krylov, a full opera, and a special focus on Greece, featuring a gala dedicated to legendary soprano Maria Callas. Whilst the festival has been a huge success in and of itself, the quality and variety of work on offer has undoubtedly filtered into the wider cultural landscape of Lebanon.

If Bustani is self-effacing when talking about her own personal achievements, she readily shows more pride when it comes to the festival’s impact and legacy. ‘Initially we were bringing artists and shows that no one under

Audiences at Al Bustan Festival
Audiences at Al Bustan Festival

stood, especially with regard to opera, and people were not used to it at all,’ she says. ‘But slowly things have changed. We’ve played an active role in this change. There really was nothing in the way of classical music here in 1994. Then in 2000, the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra formed. Today we have several orchestras that play music around the country. There has been an immense change.’

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Life in Lebanon continues to remain unstable, as thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime cross the borders, pushing the country’s existing infrastructure to its limits. It’s a testament to Bustani and her team that the festival goes ahead without fail, even in the face of civil unrest and political flux. Through making the most of her own privileges, whether it’s her musical upbringing or powerful status, Bustani has created a consistently high-end event that people can rely on and enjoy.

Bustani now wants to go further in bringing the music of her childhood to new ears. ‘What I would like to happen is that music becomes part of the official curriculum in schools. That’s my aim. At the moment there are a few schools that have music on the curriculum, but not all. It would be very good thing for young people.’