The holidays are always fertile ground for thought. Family and friends come together under what is collectively called the Christmas spirit. But what exactly does this common phrase mean? However it manifests itself, this spirit is one of unity, love and peace. Over the past eight years Lebanon has united throughout the month of December for the Beirut Chants concerts in that very spirit, using culture and music to spread a message of hope for the nation.
The free concerts draw thousands of people to various churches around downtown Beirut every night from December 1–23 for one hour of music — some classical, some religious and some pleasantly unexpected. This year Beirut Chants opened with the outstanding Messa di Gloria featuring Lebanese and Italian talent, and ended with an angelic opera aria assortment by soprano Cinzia Forte. But Beirut Chants is not just about bringing culture to the masses for free and bonding over beautiful music, it’s also about voicing a powerful message. Two of the most notable concerts this season featured music from the Quran. “I don’t like to speak about coexistence but I feel we are one nation and Beirut Chants has proven it. The people giving standing ovations [at those concerts] understood the message of love and tolerance and the big hope that the differences in our society are our strengths,” says founder Micheline Abou Samra, adding, “We should work on more projects that make us all one nation.”
Beirut Chants began when Abou Samra wanted to make use of the beautiful renovated churches in downtown Beirut and thought to bring life to those spaces to “feel that the community is participating and living the Christmas spirit in a beautiful way.” Three years ago Beirut Chants was accredited by the European Festival Association, meeting international festival standards. “We are a festival that is appreciated not only in Lebanon but also internationally,” says the rightfully proud Abou Samra. Over the years the concerts have grown in response to an obvious need and have become a marker of Christmas in the city. “Now every December 1st people don’t even have to be invited, people are already waiting for us. It has become a ritual,” she beams.
Abou Samra says attendees vary from night to night. “The crowds are very diverse depending on the program. Some are religious concerts, like this year with Ghada Shbeir. People that were there were not the same as those at the harp concert by award winning Xavier De Maistre,” she explains. What concertgoers do have in common is their love of culture. “Throughout our eight year experience we’ve seen that the Lebanese people appreciate and encourage us when they see real good will and good music. They are thirsty for high-end results, whatever [they may be], whether a concert or something else. There is a need for this,” she says, emphasizing that “culture should be within the reach of everyone.”
She credits the sponsors (individuals and companies) with keeping the festival afloat, not only financially but also with their constant support and encouragement. Abou Samra describes their donations as “giving a gift to society” — perhaps one of the nicer Christmas gifts we all received this past year.