Iraqis and Americans make music, albeit briefly


December 10, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

For about 90 minutes last night, it was possible to imagine that the United States and Iraq were old friends and allies, untroubled by memories of threats and sanctions, battles and suicide bombings. And, as members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and Washington's National Symphony Orchestra played side by side on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall before a packed house that included President and Laura Bush, the familiar adage about music being the universal language sounded unusually fresh and hopeful.

The story behind this emotional performance begins in September when Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser visited Baghdad under the auspices of the State Department. There, as he told the audience last night, he discovered artists "whose income had been eliminated, but whose voices needed to be heard if their country was to heal."

He was particularly struck by the plight of the Iraqi National Symphony, which was struggling to regroup in the wake of the war. (Even under the reign of Saddam Hussein, the orchestra wasn't guaranteed survival; the dictator was not fond of classical music.) Somehow, the musicians pulled together a concert in June and even toured northern Iraq, but conditions remained bleak.

Kaiser thought a visit by the roughly 60-member ensemble to the United States would provide a great boost. When word got out about the trip, the musicians, who represent a cross-section of the country's ethnic and religious groups, received threats, accused of collaborating with the enemy. Rehearsals took place under guard.

But the players decided to go through with the journey, a joint venture by the State Department and Kennedy Center. Even before the trip, new support for the orchestra was being mustered. The Steinway and Yamaha corporations signed on to donate badly needed new instruments, while the Major Orchestra Librarians' Association shipped off more than 500 orchestral scores to the ensemble.

The Washington concert could not escape a certain air of propaganda, but there was an obvious effort to keep the focus on the music-making. Although the Bushes' arrival in the presidential box was greeted heartily, the audience reserved its most vociferous ovation for the musicians when they subsequently filed onto the stage. And, after speeches by Kaiser and Secretary of State Colin Powell (who described the concert as "the historic re-entry of Iraqi culture on the world stage"), there wasn't a hint of politics.

NSO music director Leonard Slatkin and INSO conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat alternated podium duties. Both men enjoyed spirited, if occasionally ragged, responses from the ensemble. The considerable variance in technical ability among the Iraqi players, who range in age from 23 to 72, was unmistakable, but so was the commitment and energy behind the notes.

For the most part, the program stuck with the classics. There were works by a German (Beethoven's Egmont Overture, boldly sculpted by Slatkin) and two Frenchmen (Faure and Bizet, whose Farandole from L'Arlesienne Ezzat led with flair). That was one way, I suppose, for "Old Europe" to be enlisted in the cause of liberating Iraq after all.

And there were arrangements of popular Iraqi songs, as well as a piece by Iraqi composer Abdulla J. Sagirma. His Symphonic Poem No. 2 makes vivid use of traditional folk instruments (and also borrows liberally, if unexpectedly, from Dvorak); it got a rousing performance with Ezzat at the helm.

The most affecting moment of the evening came when cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined Slatkin and the orchestra for Faure's poignant Elegy. As the music gently unfolded, it was impossible not to think of all those, Iraqi and American, who have died - and will continue to die - in this conflict. But the evening was most about the future, the promise of what a reinvigorated cultural life could bring to a country that has seen so much pain.

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