The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers present Georges Tomb

Georges Tomb, composer and pianist. Photo courtesy of Georges Tomb

Georges Tomb, composer and pianist. Photo courtesy of Georges Tomb

The Promise of Greater Things to Come
Lebanese musician and composer premieres a new work on Sunday with the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers at the Norris Theatre

Before his performance with the San Remo Symphony Orchestra, which took place in the Italian city’s opera hall, Georges Tomb was introduced by maestro Francesco Attardi as “the young Ennio Morricone.”
This was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for the young composer and concert pianist because Morricone, known for such movie scores as “The Mission,” “Cinema Paradiso,” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” is one of the two film composers (the other being John Williams) that Tomb holds in the highest esteem.
Tomb has just arrived in Los Angeles from his native Lebanon, and on Sunday he’ll be premiering “Promise,” for piano, orchestra, soprano and choir, with the Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers at the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates.
Tomb is outwardly modest, but inwardly quite confident. His sensitivity comes through and in many ways he reminds me of the late composer Daniel Catán, whom I met just before LA Opera presented his “Florencia en el Amazonas” in 1997. Both men have, or had, the kind of artistic sensitivity that might have flourished in the elegant cafe societies of the 1920s or ‘30s.
Descended from a musical family–his father, Samir Tomb, is a noted composer–Georges Tomb has been playing piano since the age of four and composing since the age of six. He not only has performed in Lebanon, but with the Jordanian National Orchestra under the patronage of Queen Noor Al Hussein, as well as in Vienna, Paris, Budapest and Kiev. For all that, I believe he sees himself as a protégé of Joanna Nachef, and when speaking of her he doesn’t stint on his praise:
“She did not premiere my pieces, she premiered my career,” he says. “I will always be grateful to her because she was one of the few who believed in me right away.”
Nachef, who formerly led Los Cancioneros Master Chorale before founding her own group, and who has been teaching and conducting at El Camino College since 1989, is also a native of Lebanon. She immigrated to the United States with her family in the 1970s. She frequently returns to her homeland and in 2014 when in Beirut she conducted a program that included Tomb’s composition “Hope,” arranged for piano and orchestra. The piece (available on YouTube) is Romantic and cinematic in nature, with lush passages and intimate keyboard interludes. More to the point, with that performance Tomb became the youngest Lebanese composer to have his work played by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.
Georges Tomb is still just 25, and his glory years seem to be quickly on the rise. Only a couple of weeks ago he was giving a solo concert in the Petit Palais, in Paris, and when he leaves Los Angeles in a few days he’ll return to Paris, to the Salle Gaveau where an overture he composed is being included in a program devoted to the soprano Rima Tawil. The piece Tomb will premiere at the Salle Gaveau is called “Emotions,” for orchestra and choir, to be sung by the prestigious Îles de France Chorale, although he’ll introduce it as a piano solo at the Norris.

Composer and pianist Georges Tomb with Joanna Medawar Nachef. Photo

Building blocks
In this country, and with our limited sense of global geography, we tend to see little difference between one Arab country and another, but Lebanon is a former French colony and Beirut was at one time, if not still today, referred to as the Paris of the Middle East. That said, although Arabic is the language generally spoken throughout the country, Tomb’s first language was French (his first name is spelled the French way, Georges, as in Georges Bizet, etc.). English is Tomb’s third language, and he’s been mastering Italian as well because, as he says, “It’s the language of music. You need to know this language.” Especially with opera, I point out. “Absolutely,” he replies.
Like most Americans, I know little about classical Middle Eastern or even North African music, but one has to wonder how much of the regional music, especially its current or former popular artists, have influenced Tomb’s compositional esthetic. But apparently it’s minimal at best. “I believe my music is Romantic and Classical,” he says, naming Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and slipping in another mention of Morricone while he’s at it.
In short, it was essentially European classical music from the get-go.
“The Conservatory of Beirut accepted me when I was five years old,” Tomb says. “It was an exception somehow, because they saw that I was a talent.” Not long afterwards, as noted, he began to compose, although he seems to dismiss these early efforts.
Nonetheless, at the age of 10, Tomb was honored with a talent award given by the First Lady of Lebanon, Andre Lahoud.
He studied orchestration and harmony theory, and also film scoring, at the Hollywood Music Workshop, which is based outside of Vienna, with Conrad Pope, Christopher Young, Nan Schwartz, and Thomas Chase Jones.
However, when Tomb was 18, he began to pursue and then earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Balamand. That may seem to be at cross-purposes with the goal to make music, but for Tomb it was a sensible move at the time.
“I did not feel that music is a major that gives security,” he explains. “But when I met Joanna things changed, and I felt like I should give it a try. Maybe I should be living my passion.
“The path might seem so hard and so tough,” he continues, “but when you live your passion, and you believe in it, I believe you will reach your destination.”
Merely being hopeful is not enough.
“I know so,” Tomb adds for emphasis. “That’s my spirit. I don’t like to be ‘hopeful,’ because when I’m hopeful I feel it’s not going to work. But when I’m sure that things are going to work, I believe they will.”
Nothing like the power of positive thinking, right?
What about tackling larger works, like writing an opera?
“Yes, but not now,” Tomb replies, “because I believe I need to study more music.” And this he does nightly, devoting one hour before turning off the lights to poring over the scores of composers like Beethoven and Mozart.
“I dedicated this week to Debussy,” he says. “Every time I read the scores from these amazing composers I feel I have a lot of things to learn, and I am still a fish in their ocean. So it’s a bit early to write an opera.” He pauses. “But I am writing a new ‘Ave Maria,’ and I’m working on having this new ‘Ave Maria’ performed in Rome.”
This is a good place to mention that Tomb has also written a piece for the United Nations, “a project to end violence,” and he’s hopeful it may soon be performed at concerts or festivals. What he hasn’t succumbed to are offers to write ditties for commercials or to stray into the pop arena. But there’s definitely another field he’s set his sights on, and we have an inkling of it already by his references to film composer Ennio Morricone.

In the hall, and on the screen
“I’m trying to penetrate the movie industry,” he states, and one of the reasons he cites Morricone and John Williams as role models is because they are, in his view, concert composers as well. And where would he like to do this?
“I would love to start in California,” Tomb replies,”because we all know this is the city of movies, of opportunities.”
The film score by Morricone that most impressed him was for “The Mission.” The 1986 film directed by Roland Joffé is set in 18th century South America. “You feel the language of God,” Tomb says. “You don’t feel like this is a human who wrote this music; you feel it’s like Beethoven or Mozart. It’s like God wanted to transfer His message through Ennio, through Beethoven, through Mozart.”
These sentiments reveal something about the respect Tomb has for music, for the act of creation. As he has said elsewhere, “Music for me is really something sacred. I honestly feel that it is a gift from God, a message He wants to share with me. I never understood how I compose, or how I start a composition. It was always here.”
For all of his Classical and Romantic leanings, Tomb unhesitatingly admits that “I am open to all kinds of music. I love jazz, I love modern music, songs; I would love to compose movie songs, but with orchestral arrangements.” Regardless of the melody, he says, whether it’s simple or complex, the orchestration is at the foundation and gives it “the real magic if written well.
“All this needs a lot of study and talent,” he adds. “That’s why I want to penetrate the cinema industry now, because the time of John Williams and Ennio Morricone is somehow disappearing. Film composers today are becoming more electronic composers and you cannot feel the orchestral writing.”
Tomb then makes a statement that, when we think about it, is perhaps not surprising: “I still write my music with a pencil, even if I have those (computer) programs.” He feels that were he to put aside the pencil he “would lose this visual imagination. When I’m working (with a pencil in hand), I hear; I can understand more of the orchestration. So I am an old school composer.”
It’s that tactile connection between brain, hand, and writing implement, and I believe it’s not just “old school” but somehow implies Old World sensibilities, evident even more in the modern world where electronics has been a game-changer in many ways. One might ask, If Beethoven or Debussy were composing today, would they do so sitting down in front of a computer screen?

Georges Tomb, in the rehearsal room. Photo

The future has his number
Joanna Medawar Nachef is justifiably proud of having given Georges Tomb’s music career an invaluable boost. “I feel that’s a responsibility of every conductor,” she says. “That’s what conductors need to do, to find new talent.” After all, she adds, Beethoven had to start somewhere; someone needed to recognize and encourage his talent, too.
“Georges is very hard-working; he does not sit back and expect it to come to him. He labors day and night.” And, according to both of them, he gets by on very little sleep.
“They say,” Nachef continues, “that those who seek to grow and arrive have to work day and night to get there. And be persistent, and never give up. The life of a musician is not an easy one. You have to realize it and make sure you are ready to take that chance.”
When “Promise” is performed on Sunday evening the audience will judge for itself whether Tomb is a musical presence to be reckoned with, whether now or in the immediate future. He not only states that “Promise” is his favorite composition, he also says, “I believe ‘Promise’ will be my first movie score.”
The work is for piano, orchestra, choir, and wordless soprano, which is to say that the voice is another musical instrument. “It’s filled with contrasting tempo,” Nachef says. “He starts playing slow, then it’s lyrical, then it’s a little more fiery; and it ends up bombastically.”
Tomb himself will be at the piano, his skills on display no less than those of the other musicians and choir.
The work’s inception dates to September, 2015, when Tomb was visiting California, and when even then he asked Nachef to try out the soprano line, to gauge how well it fit into the work as a whole.
“So it’s interesting that we get to premiere it, three years later in Palos Verdes,” she says. And, indeed, from start to finish it seems to have gone full circle.
“In three years my life really changed,” Tomb says.
From the looks of it, many more changes are in store. This time next week he’ll be in Paris, and then, presumably, headed back to Lebanon which is, quite frankly, in a part of the world where there is often a great deal of turmoil. As one might guess, and Tomb also points this out, there isn’t a generous amount of focus on classical music, “and then we don’t have good sponsors for the orchestra.
“That’s why I needed to leave Lebanon,” he adds, “and I’m leaving in September for London. I’m going to the Royal College of Music to continue my Masters in Orchestration” (where he’ll study film scoring and composition).
It’s pretty clear that Tomb is driven to succeed, despite what many of us would see as near-insurmountable obstacles. But some people thrive on challenges, don’t they?
“I believe that I need my music to be shared with many orchestras all over the world,” he says, matter of factly. “When I saw that many orchestras (have) already performed my music, I believed more in my potential, and I believe that I am somehow responsible for this talent, and I need to make it grow more. That’s why I decided to travel to London to seriously pursue my career.”
One senses that this is only the first chapter in Tomb’s musical journey. Confidence, talent, persistence: he has all the ingredients for a long and successful future not only in the concert hall and the film industry, but wherever else his ambitions take him.
The Joanna Medawar Nachef Singers ( perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday in the Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. The program features Beethoven’s “Mass in C” and also Georges Tomb’s “Promise” along with a solo piano performance of his “Emotions.” Soloists for the evening include soprano Andrea Zomorodian, alto Erin Wood, tenor Todd Strange, and bass Abdiel Gonzalez. Tickets, $40, $30, $20 (plus $5 ticket charge). Call (310) 544-0403 ext. 221 or go to ER


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