Iraqi-U.S. link raises hopes for cultural reawakening

Chicago Tribune

The journey of the beleaguered Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra from the barbed wire of the Baghdad "Green Zone" to the majestic stage of 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."

"It started me thinking about how we could get that sector going again," he continued, "because whenever there's a major political upheaval -- think of Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's fall -- the artists truly suffer. Typically one goes from a totalitarian regime, where the artists may be controlled but they're fully funded, to a free society, where there are fewer reins put on the artists, but no money."

For Harrison, it was an opportunity to make use of an outreach initiative she started called Culture Connect, and to expand her department's educational and cultural scholarships and exchanges in a meaningful way to Iraq.

"We conduct 35,000 exchanges a year, at every level -- people who come over to this country and virtually turn into Tony Blairs and Hamid Karzais," she said, referring to the British and Afghan leaders. "We wanted to see if it would be a viable thing to hear the orchestra play [in the U.S.], because we had read with interest about the moving performances they had given after Saddam was ousted." 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.

"I had contacted them with the idea for this concert, and they were very interested. I met with them, heard the orchestra play and we talked about the repertoire and how this might function. It was as I might negotiate a tour for any orchestra coming to the Kennedy Center." The orchestra badly needed sheet music, and its instruments were in disrepair, Harrison said.

"These people who had been so brave and stuck together under terrible circumstances, we wanted to bring them to the United States for a performance," Harrison said. "We didn't want just a one-night event, even though that would be very moving and special. We wanted to tie them in with what we normally do in creating scholarships for musicians."

An agreement was reached in which the $200,000 cost of the Iraqi orchestra's visit and concert would be shared by 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 the orchestra's transportation and lodging costs.

The 55 members of the Iraqi group will be joined by about 45 musicians from the National Symphony, 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.

"These are percussion and string instruments," Kaiser said. "One, called the santur, is made up of metal pieces that are struck with a metal mallet, making a very eerie sound."

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has been promoting outreach efforts to foreign performing artists, will be the evening's soloist.

Though only this one concert is scheduled, the Iraqi musicians will stay over to meet with children from various Washington-area schools.

"I think the impact for them is going to be beyond anything they're anticipating because so many people want to help them," Harrison said.

"We are already working to come up with a way where they will have new instruments and sheet music.

"I'm sure down the road they'll have sponsors. I'd like to see them have a new performance hall one day. We plan on this being a long-term relationship."

A revived Iraqi symphony will encourage other cultural entities in Iraq, including theater companies, Kaiser said.

"Every person I met in Iraq talked about the need for the nation to heal, not just from the last year but for the last decade," he said.

"The arts help us to heal. The arts allow us to express our emotions and express our fears. They help us resolve our own internal conflicts. I think of the art that is being created about 9/11. There are operas and symphony works and theater works being created about 9/11 because they help people deal with their feelings about it."

"The same thing could be true in Iraq. We need to let the artists speak."

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