Harmonious contributors restored orchestra

December 10, 2003|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Three years ago, members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra were reduced to subsistence wages, forced by Saddam Hussein to supplement their love of music with jobs as taxi drivers and teachers.

Three months ago, they were driven out of their headquarters by the ravages of war. And last night, they performed with the U.S. National Symphony Orchestra and soloist Yo-Yo Ma at the red-carpeted Kennedy Center - Beethoven and Bizet at their fingertips.

"Music is an international language," Hisham Sharaf, director of the Iraqi orchestra, said between rehearsals at the Kennedy Center on Monday. "We are Kurdish, Shi'a, Sunni, Christian, Armenian."

The journey from Baghdad to Washington for this troupe of about 60 Iraqi musicians owes something to Air Force Col. Scott Norwood, a senior military assistant to L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. administrator in Baghdad. Norwood, who plays the trumpet, was invited to perform with the orchestra this summer and learned the plight of the musicians.

When Saddam's regime fell in April, looters burned the al-Rashid Theater, where the orchestra performed monthly, destroying much of its library of sheet music. Instruments were stolen or damaged. Undeterred, 45 members of the orchestra gave their first postwar concert in June. They played "My Nation," the national anthem before Saddam took power in 1979.

The musicians had moved to another site in Baghdad, but an erratic electrical grid left them playing in the dark in a hall with poor acoustics and no air conditioning. In November, Bremer welcomed the musicians to their new headquarters at the Baghdad Convention Center, inside the city's so-called Green Zone, which is guarded by U.S. troops.

But before they could play, they needed music and instruments. Norwood contacted Susan Feder of G. Schirmer Inc., one of the largest publishers of music scores, and she in turn contacted the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association, an international network of symphony librarians. Within three months, collecting materials in Washington, London and Sydney, Australia, organizers had gathered complete sets of hundreds of pieces of music - with scores for the conductor and the various instruments.

Under copyright law, some music cannot be purchased but only rented. In those cases, publishers donated it.

They also reached out to some musicians' estates, which donated works still under copyright, such as George Gershwin's An American in Paris and Gustav Holst's The Planets.

At the same time, the National Endowment for the Arts had launched Operation Harmony, a request to music companies to donate instruments. Steinway & Sons, the 150-year-old piano company based in New York and Germany, earmarked a 9-foot concert grand, model D - the kind most often used by symphony orchestras, which normally sells for $96,000.

Monetary donations came in, too. And two officials from Washington came to visit.

Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, and Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs, visited Baghdad in September and invited the orchestra to Washington. They agreed to share the $200,000 cost of the trip.

Founded in 1959, the Iraqi orchestra is among the oldest in the Arab world. It was disbanded in 1966 by a government official reportedly hostile to Western classical music. Eventually, the orchestra went public again, although its schedule was erratic during the 10 years of the Iran-Iraq War. In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the conductor, a foreigner, fled the country, composer Mohammed Amin Ezzat was named its conductor. He served until 2002, when Saddam, who had written a novel called The Gate of the City, wanted Ezzat to compose a score for the stage adaptation.

"I didn't say no, of course," Ezzat told the Chicago Tribune. "I accepted. Then I went to Germany. I was a refugee."

He returned to Iraq and the orchestra this fall. Last night, one of his compositions, Two Fragments, was to to have its U.S. debut.

"When you actually put musicians side by side with a piece of music, it's irrelevant where they come from," Kaiser said. "There's a great symbolic reason for doing this."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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