Thursday and Friday evenings saw a very special double-bill concert of Arabic superstars at the Royal Opera House Muscat. The first half featured the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra behind the famous Lebanese singer, pianist and composer Marwan Khoury and his own eight-piece ensemble. A mostly Arabic audience filled the hall, and nearly on time sixty-six members of ROSO filed on stage under guest conductor, Mahmoud el Eid, opening with the Omani National Anthem. In his 2004, ‘Kul el Qasayid’, Marwan’s voice was warm, expressive and intimate — the sort of quality one could listen to all night - supported by three robust male backing singers and an unfailingly tuneful orchestra which rose admirably to the challenge. ‘Rah Ghanni el Layleh’ composed by Khoury himself, had an upbeat intro featuring Alexander Melakyan on Grand Piano in a French Music-Hall style. The following filmic ballad, ‘Ya Rabb’ opened with some rhythmic playing from ROSO’s String section, an electric guitar riff (Goseph Damrjuban) and rhythm section. There was a lovely introduction from oboe player, Yahya Wahab al Dhanki with Badar Khalfan al Busafi on harp to, ‘Akbar Anani’ followed by a strong guitar (Fadi Banadly) and drum section (Patrick Estephan). Arabic percussionists Bilad Saif al Din on Req and Ziyad Jabour, tablah, improvised inexhaustibly throughout the set. The well-known, ‘Khodni Ma’ak’ had the audience applauding its opening and featured a fine trumpet melody from Husain al Ajmi above Khoury’s velvet vocal line. Khoury’s rhythmic, ‘Qalbi Daq’ provided a cinematic soundtrack, a catchy, singable number with a clean cut-off to finish — as in all his compositions.
The slow, thoughtful, ‘Qasr al Shouq’ opened with a sad Qanoon solo (Sadiq Mala’ib) in mournful mood with a fine trumpet obligato to military snare rhythm. The following song, however, put the spotlight on Khoury playing a rippling piano introduction and accompanying himself in the soft rock, ’Lau’, with just guitar and bass. In contrast, the only non-original composition in the set came with full orchestra in Maqam, Kurd (Arabic scale) by Abdel Wahhab with rich bass backing vocals against Khoury’s heartfelt tenor, so full of expression and gesture. ‘Inta W Ma’i’ enjoyed a full, warm orchestral sound with mellow Horn countermelodies (Aisha al Shukairi) and harp. The fiddles of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra provided syncopated punctuating chords with Melakyan on Grand Piano and Estephan still steady on the Drums. Part One closed with, ‘Dawa’ir’, an orchestral Waltz number which left everyone with a spring in their step.
Part Two opened to a now packed auditorium, awaiting eagerly to witness Lebanese megastar Najwa Karam first hand in Muscat. The stage was reset with three drummers in a Perspex sound box, miked-up violins and two Korg keyboards. There was a powerful instrumental introduction for Maestro Antoine Chaak to enter, then amid a rousing fanfare from the ensemble, Najwa herself came on stage like a silvery, glitzy-white princess. Her opening number was a high production tribute to Oman, with military-style snare drum rhythms and Korg effects. Najma excelled in an ornamented, chromatic interpretation of the Maqam with her three male backing singers adding much to the performance. The audience adored having their idol in front of them and clapped along at any opportunity. The first songs were read from a prompt, but after that it was all by heart, from the heart. Bouzouki player and composer, Georges Mardirossian, gave many solo introductions in the programme, such as the next song, ‘Ta’a Bi Ward’ full of ornamented Arabic vocal inflections in a highly polished production. The fiddle lines were led by Maestro Chaak, a talented violinist, composer and singer himself, as Najwa enticed the audience to sing in the gaps she left in, ‘Ya Bayi’. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves enormously. A stunning fiddle introduction from Chaak melted into a syncopated rhythmic section in, ‘Khalini Shufak’ allowing for some great interplay between percussionists, Haydar and Chamaa, while virtuoso Kit-Drummer, Naim Sawaya did not miss a beat throughout his tremendous performance.
‘Shams El Gheniye’, dedicated to Lebanon was composed by Antoine Chaak in Maqam Kurd. It was introduced with a virtuoso fiddle line from the Maestro and followed by a lengthy improvised vocalise from Ms Karam. It was rhythmically exciting with changing tempos and syncopated drum solo interjections. Najwa’s musical language stayed firmly in traditional Arabic mode while fusing Western electric guitar, bass and drums in an effective rock rhythm. She did however embrace some Hindi ‘tabla bols’ in a breath-taking duet with Tablah player, Elie el Khoury. ‘Kitir Helou’ was the most touching, tender of all; a vocal duet between Chaak and Karam after a moving Bouzouki introduction. The final number was a broad, lush sweep of orchestration in a filmic, ‘Shou Hal Layleh’, featuring a heavy bass line from Jihad Harfouch. The Lebanese icon concluded her mesmerising, compelling presentation with a final reprise of ‘Oman’ to an insistent, patriotic snare drum beat. The residents of Muscat hope that the stirring emotions evoked by Najwa Karam’s vocal prowess will be repeated in the not-too-distant future in another concert by this Lebanese megastar.