Orchestra conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat tapped his music stand impatiently, and the violin tuning and friendly jabbering finally eased to a rest.
He raised his baton, and in that split second before the first note a remarkable thing happened: silence. It was a rare moment in a city blasted by the oppressive noise of generators, air conditioners, helicopters, gunfire, shouts and explosions.
What followed was not yet a great reading of the masterwork in front of the remaining members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. This was their first rehearsal after a summer break. But it was a familiar harmony of strings and brass and woodwinds that drowned out the sounds of war, if only for the afternoon.
“I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life,” said pianist Zuhal Sultan, 16, one of 10 students who fill in during rehearsals because of the difficulty of getting all 70 musicians to central Baghdad for the Saturday and Tuesday sessions.
She lost her parents in the last four years, one to violence, one to illness. Her older brothers worry about her crosstown trips to rehearsal, she says. But like many here, music is her balm.
“We’re lucky to be musicians,” Zuhal said. “We can express ourselves through music, whether we are sad or happy or any other feeling. Playing with this orchestra brings me joy.”
Ezzat, the conductor, was not concerned with his musicians’ feelings, but how they played the notes on the page; their tempo and pitch. The orchestra’s next concert was two weeks away. With stops and starts, the first two dozen measures took close to an hour to traverse. Woodwinds rushed the cello section, violinists fumbled a complicated passage, and someone intruded on a marked rest.
First strings alone, he barked, then brass. His only English words were spoken after a rap of his baton: “One, two, three.”
The piece at hand was written in 1965 by an East German composer who took a thread of traditional Iraqi music and expanded it for orchestra. It is a slow and melancholy affair called “Since I Have No Protection.”
Orchestra Director Karim Wasfi had returned this day after spending four months in hiding. There were three attempts on his life, the fallout of Islamic extremists’ hatred of all things from the West, including its music.
“I always knew I was going to come back,” said Wasfi, a cellist who studied at Indiana University. “There was no logic to it. It’s just that I missed this place.”
He was standing at the entrance to a large, mirrored studio in the Ballet and Music Institute, a performing arts school and rehearsal space. Inside, his musicians sat on folding chairs, strings in front, horns in back and woodwinds in the middle.
The orchestra took a beating after the U.S. invasion 4 1/2 years ago. Looters stole all they could carry from the school and broke much of the rest. Help has since come from all over the world, including from a La Cañada Flintridge teenager. Instruments have been replaced and sheet music recovered. But other losses run deeper.
“The difficulty has been the development of our repertoire and the next generation training to be musicians,” Wasfi said. “And, obviously, there is the difficulty getting guest conductors, guest musicians. We had so many ambitious plans before the war.”
The orchestra plays works by Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, as well as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Chopin’s piano concertos. In 2003, the ensemble played the Kennedy Center in Washington, with President Bush and other top administration officials in attendance.
The prospects for a triumphant return to international performances have dimmed somewhat with the departure of 25 orchestra musicians who have fled to other countries. The first- and second-chair oboe players were among them. In the first chair now is 14-year-old Duaa Mousa, the daughter of the orchestra’s music librarian.
“At first I was afraid because everyone else was older,” said the girl, who gave her first performance with the orchestra in June. “Then I got used to it.”
She cradled an oboe that was one of the small miracles that have kept the musicians from surrendering. The instrument’s journey began in La Cañada Flintridge two years ago, when two members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic saw a story in a music publication about the Iraqi orchestra.
Their 17-year-old son, Zach Wetzel, an aspiring musician, raised $6,000 from donations and barbershop quartet performances at the Paseo Colorado mall in Pasadena. He bought instruments and musical supplies as his Eagle Scout project. The shipment arrived last summer, and Wetzel earned his Eagle Scout rank in June.
“They sent the oboe and reeds and, look, this bow for the contrabass, everything,” said Majid Mousa, the music librarian and a trumpet player. “Some of the supplies we gave to students. The oboe went to my daughter. It is a beautiful instrument.”
As the rehearsal continued, the room grew hot. There was no electricity and the only air came through windows high above the musicians. Some fanned themselves with sheet music while the conductor worked with a different section.
Then he tapped his baton, calling all to attention. “Again,” he said.