IMAGINE Transports Its Audience to the Enchanting World of Music and Culture

Participants and audience members get to experience the best of both worlds.

By Hanan Nasser

Garo Avessian conducting the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra in Saint Joseph Church.
Dr. Ali, Salley Koo and Avery Waite performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
The student orchestra during the sensory-friendly Carnival of the Animals concert.
Acting and mask manipulation were only a couple of the many workshops offered by IWCS.

Two classical music concerts were the pinnacle of the IMAGINE Workshops and Concerts Series (IWCS) 2019 spring residency, further cementing the program’s mission to promote and integrate appreciation of the arts in a fast-paced era.  

On Friday March 22, musicians finetuned their instruments in the 19th century Saint Joseph Church before the Triple Concerto, a first-ever collaboration between LAU and the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. The following day, students from LAU, the Lebanese National Conservatory and other universities took part in the Carnival of the Animals concert for families and children with special needs at Irwin Hall Auditorium.

At the Friday night concert – with 1,200 people packed into the church – one latecomer was overheard telling her friend, “Have you ever seen so many people come to a classical concert?” as they were ushered to stand at the back for lack of seats.

The orchestra – conducted by Garo Avessian – performed three compositions by the pillars of the First Viennese School: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig Beethoven and Joseph Haydn. Accompanying the orchestra were this IMAGINE residency’s guest artists: internationally acclaimed violinist Salley Koo and Juilliard-trained cellist Avery Waite, along with LAU Assistant Professor of Music and IWCS Founder and Director Seba Ali.

“This collaboration,” said LAU President Joseph G. Jabbra in his welcoming speech, “flowed from a deep conviction that our young people, our society are in need of education and culture symbolized by music as the very foundation of the ascent of civilization the world over.”

By involving students in an array of activities and connecting them with local, Arab and international artists, LAU’s Performing Arts (PFA) program and the IMAGINE initiative “offer ample learning, performance and active-learning opportunities to the young talents in the region and the world and prepare them to be the next leaders in this field,” said Dr. Ali.

IWCS is also a medium of civic engagement for both university and high-school students with a background in the performing arts or an interest in the discipline.

One such event was the Saturday sensory-friendly Carnival of the Animals concert – a fun and interactive 1886 suite by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns – held in collaboration with Step Together, an NGO for individuals with special needs.

Ahead of the event, Dr. Ali, Koo and Waite led extensive training sessions for the students to prepare them to perform in a non-conventional environment. Dr. Ali said that she would deliberately make sounds during rehearsals in order to keep the young musicians on edge yet focused on their instruments. Alumna Lynn Jbeily (BA ’18), who played the piano at the concert, said it was her first time performing with an orchestra and described the experience as very challenging.

After giving a short narration, PFA student Rachid Hneineh had audience members listen to animal sounds and asked the children present to tell him fun facts about each animal.

For Hneineh, the experience revealed a “different aspect of being a performer.” He said it was no longer only about the ability to act, but also to “interact with the crowd to make the story more interesting.” 

Through IMAGINE, Dr. Ali hopes to promote a culture of family concerts, where parents who have children with special needs can relax and allow their kids to express themselves freely. “I feel blessed to be able to provide artistic events that are accessible to all,” she said.

The spring residency also offered workshops in musical theater, acting and mask manipulation, theater and music, conducting, and creative composition, in addition to a session that taught participants how to identify different emotions or thoughts through music. The themes of the workshops – which, said Dr. Ali, needed to be relevant to our time – catered to the needs of the students while complementing LAU’s BA in PFA courses.

Students are also engaged with their community off-campus, with IMAGINE organizing two activities for children in Al Nabaa and Ketermaya refugee camps. Participants in the musical theater workshop gave a short performance at Al Nabaa.

Through its whirlwind residencies, IWCS takes its audience and students to a world where they are reminded to reconnect, slow down and imagine.

“At a time when social media is inducing artificial social bonds, it seems more obvious that we are in dire need of redirecting our community to creativity, democracy, equality, and empowerment. It is all possible through the arts,” concluded Dr. Ali.