There wasn't a single audience member seated in front of the Temple of Bacchus during the Sound of Resilience concert on Sunday.
“I would not call it a concert. I’d call it a message of solidarity and unity,” Lebanese maestro Harout Fazlian, who conducted the performance, told Lebanese TV station LBC of this year’s iteration of the Baalbeck International Festival.
“People in their homes will be having front seats for one hour during which they can forget everything and listen to music,” Fazlian, who is the festival's artistic director, added.
The annual festival was streamed live this year, without an audience in attendance, to stick to the safety measures put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was broadcast live across major Lebanese television channels, as well as on social media platforms and on MBC's Shahid.
The concert, held under the theme Sound of Resilience, featured the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, the choirs of the country's Antonine University and Notre Dame University, and the group Qolo Atiqo.
With 150 instrumentalists and choral singers seated at the centre of the Roman ruins, washing the floodlit colonnade of Corinthian columns with the music of Beethoven, Verdi, the Rahbani brothers and Fairouz, it was difficult not to feel a surge of emotion.
Also moving were the comments flooding into the YouTube page’s live chat, as drone footage of the concert streamed worldwide. Millions tuned in to watch the concert, and emojis of red hearts and roses piled up in the chat box, along with messages of solidarity and strength.
“This is the sound of our great country when politics are muted,” one user, Gaby Jabbour, wrote.
“It’s as if it’s a glimpse of what Lebanon can look like at all times,” another user, Mira Feghali, wrote.
However, some pointed out that the decision to stream the concert on TV and social media meant many locals couldn’t watch it as there have been near around-the-clock power cuts and the internet is too slow to stream video. People shared pictures of dark highways without streetlights due to the cuts.
Lebanon is facing a turbulent financial crisis.
Since economic woes in the autumn sparked mass protests from October last year against a political class deemed irretrievably corrupt, tens of thousands have lost their jobs or part of their income, and prices have skyrocketed. Banks have have suspended dollar withdrawals, while the local currency has lost more than 80 per cent of its value to the greenback on the black market.
Compounding the crisis has been the coronavirus pandemic, as measures to stem the spread have exacerbated the situation. Lebanon has recorded 1,873 cases of Covid-19, including 36 deaths.
“Yes! This is happening despite everything happening!” Twitter user Oulaya Samhoun-Jawad wrote just before the concert was broadcast. “This is how resilient we are!”
Baalbeck as a barometer
Baalbek itself became a militia stronghold during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, but conservation and tourism have revived the ruins over the past three decades.
Lebanon is known for its summer music festivals, which in the past have drawn drawn large crowds and attracted performers such as Shakira, Sting and Andrea Bocelli. Other festivals have not yet announced their plans for this year.
First held in 1955, the annual Baalbeck Festival is one of the region's key cultural events and has helped to bolster Lebanon's music scene over the decades.
In the past, the festival has welcomed legendary performers on to its stage, including Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Baez. Segments of their performances were shown during Sunday’s live-streamed event.
The festival celebrated its 65th anniversary this year – as well as the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. In many ways the festival has been a touchstone for Lebanon throughout the years, and not only the festivals that took place, but also those that didn’t.
The Lebanese Civil War meant the festival had to close its doors from 1975 to 1996. When it returned in 1997, it marked the historic occasion with lavish shows by the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Marek Janowski, and the Lebanese dance company Caracalla Dance Theatre.
The festival also halted in 2006 due to the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and 270 Hezbollah fighters were killed, while Israel lost 115 soldiers and 43 civilians.
Festival director Nayla de Freige told AFP that most artists performed for free at the designated Unesco World Heritage site.
This year, the concert aimed to represent "a way of saying that Lebanon does not want to die. We have an extremely productive and creative art and culture sector," she said.
The Baalbeck Festival is currently led by a committee of 12 volunteers, and its mission statement says one of its main aims is to "continue to project a positive image of Lebanon to the world", to fight "for a better country by promoting culture, tourism, and peace".