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Omar Rahbany and his Piano Concerto

MusicPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Wed, December 19, 2018 09:33:24

Seven, maybe eight years ago, I get a phone call from an unknown number. I pick up. “Hi Makram, this is Omar Rahbany”, says the voice from the receiver. We have a brief conversation on the phone and we agree to meet at Omar’s house. A few nights later, we meet and we get acquainted with one another. He tells me about his family and their musical heritage, I recount to him how I picked up the double bass (I had only been playing for a couple of years back then) and which kind of music I listen to. Then, he plays a DVD of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra performing a piece of music he had written. I hadn’t the faintest idea that I would be playing in that orchestra some years after that moment. Omar tells me about his projects and in order to demonstrate to me what he’s been working on, we proceed to his piano room. There he sits down and begins playing some complex rhythms in 5/4 intertwined with beautiful melodies. He plays and he plays, and the more he plays, the crazier it gets, and the more I think: “There’s no way that I can play this music!” Omar finishes the piece at hand and we move back to the living room. “Do you think you’d be interested in playing this kind of music?” he asks. “I’m not sure… I’m pretty busy these days, and I’m not really sure I can find the time to practice this kind of thing” I reply. We continue to chat for a little, and I leave the house feeling like I’ve escaped a difficult situation. But, it might true what they say: “One cannot escape one’s destiny”.

In the year 2015, I joined the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. I had never imagined I’d be an Orchestra musician, especially not right after coming back from Holland and New York where I had worked for two years to complete my Master’s degree in Jazz. Some weeks into the season, our principal guest conductor, Jordi Mora, walks in, and we begin to rehearse Brahms 1st Symphony, and Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration”. On the third day of rehearsals, I notice a young man sitting behind Mora with a score of the pieces we’re playing in his hands, his eyes studying intently what his ears pick up from the orchestra and Jordi Mora’s interpretation. He looked very familiar, and it took me a few minutes before I recalled my visit to Omar’s home and came to the conclusion that it was him. I walk up to him during the break and we reintroduce and catch up.

During Mora’s second visit, all three of us drove up to my village (Btekhnay) and spent the day walking in the mountains, discussing ideas about life and music. As we had lunch at my uncle Jamal’s house, I was asked how Omar and I knew each other. I mentioned the story above and I finished by jokingly saying “Yeah, I just ran out of that house as fast as I could… I couldn’t play that stuff back then”. “And, now? Can you play it?” asks Jordi Mora. Without any thought or hesitation the word ‘yes’ came out of my mouth.

Another year passes, but Omar and I remained in touch. One day we drove to the Barouk Cedar Reserve because we both share an affection for nature. As we sat on bench beneath the massive ancient cedar trees, he informs me that he’s been in contact with The Beirut Chants Festival, and that he will most likely play his Piano Concerto with them in December. To me, it was great news, because Omar is a serious, hard-working, well-formed musician and human being; it can only make me happy to know that his music will be performed in public. We left the subject there, till a week later he calls me asking “What are you doing on the 22nd of December?” I answer “Nothing, I’m free!”, “Well, book yourself… we’re playing my Piano Concerto, I’ll tell you the details later”. Destiny has caught up.

Omar’s concerto is the most difficult, yet most rewarding, piece of music I have ever tackled. It’s all in 5/4 with all kinds of rhythmic challenges, and it is finely orchestrated. Two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. Add to that drums and Timpani. The music is written in such a way that no one can afford to slack off on his part. Every note on each instrument leads to the next note on the next instrument. Which means each of one of us has to be vigilant with his playing for the sake of the group. Omar would bring in some complementary rhythm exercises to help us better understand his thought process in this composition. That was so helpful, as it turned what we felt were highly complicated passages into much simpler ideas. “Any fool can make the simple seem complicated, but it takes genius to make something complicated seem simple”, said Charlie Mingus.

The overall rehearsal atmosphere was that of anarchic nature. Anarchy does not mean chaos as is widely misconceived. Anarchy: The absence of hierarchy. We all shared our thoughts and gave suggestions on how we could make this or that sound better. We have moments of collective laser-focus, and moments of laughter and silliness. Moments of frustration at not being able to play a passage properly, followed by collective encouragement and group labor to overcome the obstacle. Everything runs smoothly and we’re all there to make each other sound good. Now we’re almost done with rehearsals and we’re feeling very close to completely nailing the music. The way I see it: December 22nd is a monumental day for me and for Lebanese music. Omar’s concerto is very difficult to play but not difficult to listen to. It’s full of challenges for the performers, but it’s full of what makes the Rahbany’s who they are: beautiful melodies. I can speak for each one of us in The Passport Chamber Ensemble when I say that I’m very much looking forward to perform more and more of Omar Rahbany’s work.

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