Cultural and political spheres cooperate to help musicians

November 30, 2003|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The journey of the beleaguered Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra from the barbed wire of the Baghdad "Green Zone" to the United States' largest performing arts center began with the symphony's deeply emotional performance of the Iraqi national anthem after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein last spring.

It brought the orchestra's plight and potential for reviving Iraq's cultural and artistic life to the attention of two people in a position to do something about it: Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.

"It made me aware that there were actually contemporary artists working in Iraq," Kaiser said. "All we were reading about were the artifacts that were stolen from the museum."

For Harrison, it was an opportunity to make use of an outreach initiative she started, called Culture Connect, and expand her department's educational and cultural scholarships and exchanges in a meaningful way to Iraq. She organized a delegation that included Kaiser and Culture Connect Director Brian Sexton, and they went to Iraq in September.

"I thought it would be wonderful to hear the orchestra in this country -- particularly playing with our orchestra -- because, when musicians play music, you lose your national boundaries," Kaiser said.

An agreement was reached in which the $200,000 cost of the Iraqi orchestra's visit and concert would be shared by both the Kennedy Center and the State Department, with the former providing the concert hall and a complement of musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra, and the latter paying for the orchestra's transportation and lodging costs.

About 45 musicians from the National Symphony will join the 55 members of the Iraqi group, and they will perform as a single, joint orchestra. Iraqi conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat and NSO conductor Leonard Slatkin will take turns leading the mixed group.

Their Dec. 9 concert will include works by Beethoven and Bizet as well as two pieces of contemporary Iraqi music for a full symphony orchestra, augmented by six Kurdish folk instruments. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has been actively promoting outreach efforts to foreign performing artists, will be the evening's soloist.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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