A love for the stage inspires Lebanon’s most in-demand conductor Harout Fazlian
It just may be the last thing one would expect belongs to the Principal Conductor of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. And yet, inside Harout Fazlian’s home office in Beirut, alongside his large library of Symphony and Opera scores, there it is: a shrine to classic rock and roll music. The cranberry-colored walls are adorned with a framed Beatles poster alongside a picture of Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. Next to his desk sits a drum set and in the corner, nearly a dozen electric and acoustic guitars propped up on stands. “I love rock and roll,” Fazlian beams enthusiastically. “You cannot deny that Dark Side of the Moon is a masterpiece,” he insists. “The Beatles are the Mozarts of the second half of the twentieth century. How far away is Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony?”
In the rarified world of the orchestra, such comparisons are considered blasphemous—and indeed Fazlian admits they raise more than eyebrows among his colleagues. However, while his appreciation of classic rock may seem hardly befitting of a world renowned orchestra conductor, it is an integral part of this extraordinary and multifaceted musician, who has propelled the popularity of classical music in Lebanon and on the global stage.
“I am not supposed to say it but the advantage I have in my approach to classical music is that I put the energy and aggressiveness of rock and roll in classical music because I understand it,” he explains.
Born in Beirut into a family of famous artists—his father was a theater director and his mother a painter who played piano—Fazlian was never far away from a stage. Performing in front of an audience just came naturally. After his family immigrated from Beirut to Montreal while he was a teenager, he picked up a guitar in high school, formed a rock band and began touring. That’s where he learned the importance of building a relationship with a live audience. “Whether there is one person in the audience or one thousand, you have to give one hundred percent. Without the public and audience reaction you really are missing a large part of your art. Performing that music taught me a lot about being on stage.”
Not surprisingly given an upbringing surrounded by the theater, music and painting, Fazlian is inspired not only by different musical genres, but also different art forms. He sees music through a palette of colors, shades, and textures to reimagine compositions that have been recorded countless times. “If a musical piece is a rose,” he says, “some conductors will focus on the shape of the rose, some will concentrate on its color, others on its smell, and some will describe the picture of the rose. I prefer to look at the thorn because it too is part of the rose.”
Fazlian’s distinctly expressive style has enthralled audiences around the world and garnered international acclaim. Among numerous awards, he received an Honorary Doctorate degree from The International Academy of Sciences of Nature and Society of Armenia, a Certificate of Honors from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia, and in 2015 the French Government honored Fazlian as an Officer of the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters.
His greatest reward, however, lies in the thrill of performing, engaged in that rarest of moments with the rapt attention of his audience. “It is almost like an out-of-body experience,” he recounts. “When you are conducting and you enter a fourth dimension where there is no time or space. You are floating on an emotional and intellectual journey and when you turn around and see the audience was with you, it’s the most rewarding and beautiful feeling.”
Deeply devoted to his craft, there is also a practical side to this vibrant virtuoso, who is keenly aware of the importance of pleasing his audience and has embraced a mission to popularize classical music in his native Lebanon. He helped establish the country’s first Symphony Orchestra in 1999, whose performances are open to the public free of charge. Over the past 18 years, it has grown in both size and reputation, transforming into a world-class one hundred piece orchestra with an impressive following. “It really gives me goose bumps when people start calling to inquire about the next season,” Fazlian says. “They thank us week in and week out for providing beautiful, high-class music.”
Throughout the past decade, Fazlian has developed a reputation for reinterpreting numerous symphonies and operas to incorporate Lebanese and Middle-Eastern musical influences. In collaboration with the Lebanese poet Henri Zogheib, Fazlian translated into Lebanese Arabic Mozart’s Opera Bastien and Bastienne, adapting the translated text into the score and conducting the World Premiere with the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra and an all-Lebanese cast. During the 2011 Baalbeck International Festival, he conducted the musical play From the Days of Salaheddine—the first time a Lebanese musical play was performed with a live orchestra. And in 2014, at the Byblos International Festival, he conducted the concert performance of Marcel Khalife with the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra alongside an 80-piece choir, the largest event in the festival’s history.
Fazlian is also known throughout Lebanon and the Middle East for conducting concerts for famous Lebanese singer Fairouz and since 2000, the conductor of the Lebanese diva Julia Boutros, whose performances draw thousands of fans. In 2017, he was invited to conduct the official Christmas Concert at the Lebanese Presidential Palace in the presence of the President of the Republic and the First Lady, along with the Prime Minister, ministers, members of Parliament and ambassadors.
Always searching for new ways to improve the Orchestra, Fazlian has helped expand its reach by contacting embassies and other institutions to collaborate with musicians from around the world. He has introduced to the Lebanese public talented composers and musicians from Asia, Europe, North America and of course Armenia. On several occasions, Fazlian invited the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Academic Choir to perform in Beirut and in the Gulf Region.
Showcasing the talents of Armenian musicians offers Fazlian an opportunity to give back to Armenia for providing his education in classical music. He spent seven years in Yerevan, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees both with Honors in Symphony and Opera Conducting, followed by a PhD in Music Education. “It is my way of first saying thank you to Armenia and my teachers for unlocking the musical potential inside of me but also at the same time, a way of showing the people of Lebanon and the world that Armenia is home to a world class orchestra. When I travel around the world and conduct,” he adds, “I always incorporate the music of Armenian composers in my repertoire. It is my obligation and my duty to make people hear Armenian music.”
Proudly Armenian, Fazlian is a lifelong member of the AGBU community in Beirut, where he attended the Demirdjian Elementary School. “I was actually involved in the AGBU Community before I was even born,” he says. His father established the AGBU-AYA Vahram Papazian Theater Group in Beirut and Fazlian fondly remembers sitting in the Gulbenkian Theater in the Hovagimian-Manoogian School watching the group rehearse.
When he moved back to Beirut in 1996, AGBU was the first point of call professionally. He began working with the AGBU-AYA Choir as Director and Conductor. Over the next three years at the helm, he breathed new life into the choir, revitalizing the repertoire and reimagining new ways of performing that helped the ensemble become the premier choir in Lebanon.
Just as creativity and imagination have served as the foundation for his own success, Fazlian encourages his students at Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik and Haigazian University in Beirut to broaden their musical horizons by exposing themselves to art and literature so they too can interpret music through a different lens. “My advice is listen to a lot of music, different genres and different conductors, and read as many books as possible. Go to a gallery and absorb paintings and colors because that will come out in your music. I can not emphasize enough how important that was for me when I was young because, unlike watching a movie, literature and paintings help you exercise your imagination!”
Today, the 56-year old Fazlian professes he is still learning and experimenting with new ways of using his hands to connect with the hearts and minds of his audience, creating an unspoken dialogue through music. Whether as conductor or composer, he humbly considers the pursuit of his passion a lifelong learning process. “Maybe when I am 85 I will have figured it all out,” he says. Among his vast classical and opera repertoire, those he considers closest to his character—Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini—continue to inspire him. “When I am conducting, I talk to them,” Fazlian confesses. “The really odd thing is that they answer back,” he adds with a smile.