Unifying note in a chamber divided

Times Staff Writer

The sniffer dogs didn't quite trust the double bass. A rocket exploded nearby as the guests arrived. And at the last minute, the lights went out -- just some of the difficulties that arise when the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performs in Baghdad.

But at the appointed hour Wednesday, visiting British conductor Oliver Gilmour raised his baton, and strains of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" Overture filled the hall that serves as Iraq's parliament chamber.

The occasion was the U.N.-sponsored World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development; the audience, an invitation-only mix of uniformed soldiers, suited diplomats and politicians, and women in flowing veils.

"What better way of talking about dialogue through culture than through music?" said Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' special representative to Iraq. It was the first time since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 that an international guest conductor had performed with the national symphony.

Gilmour, the artistic director of the Sofia Symphony Orchestra in Bulgaria, was approached by his brother, Andrew, political director for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq.

"What prompted me to come here is the awareness that not everything in Iraq is submerged," the conductor said. "Artistic life continues. . . . Without it, the country wouldn't be able to breathe."

For Karim Wasfi, the Iraqi orchestra's director, conductor and cello soloist, the concert was the fulfillment of a personal mission to bring the unifying nature of music into the corridors of power "to fight ignorance, to fight back against extremism and to fight for a better Iraq."

The program, a mix of classical, Arab and Kurdish works, was decided on in a series of e-mail messages and telephone calls.

Rehearsals were interrupted for 10 days when fighting erupted in the capital between Shiite Muslim militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi forces. Even when the musicians could meet, there was almost always someone stuck in the checkpoints, raids and periodic driving bans that are part of the fabric of the city.

Gilmour had two days to practice with the orchestra. He landed Monday during a dust storm that grounded helicopter flights between Baghdad's international airport and the Green Zone, the fortified government and diplomatic area where he would be staying and performing.

Gilmour turned up for the first rehearsal in an armored Humvee, with a splitting headache from the helmet he wore for the ride.

Precious practice time was lost because of the hours it took to get the musicians through the layers of security protecting the Green Zone and the Baghdad Convention Center conference hall, where parliament meets. Last year, a bomb blast in the building's cafeteria killed a lawmaker.

The final rehearsal Wednesday was cut short when sniffer dogs were brought in to search the hall for hidden explosives.

A rocket blast reverberated through the building as guests were checking their names against a list and lining up for a pat-down, but that has become so commonplace that most barely registered a reaction.

During the opening remarks, a power cut plunged the hall into darkness. Without missing a beat, De Mistura raised his voice to tell the audience of about 200: "Regardless of whether there is light or not, the light of culture goes on in Iraq."

Minutes later, a generator kicked in, and the performance went off without a major hitch.

It was a homecoming of sorts for the orchestra, which shared the Convention Center with the U.S. occupation authority in 2003. The musicians were eventually asked to vacate the building's state-of-the-art conference hall to make room for Iraqi representatives to meet.

Since then, the orchestra has been without a home. It performs at country clubs, art galleries and any other place that will have it. The precise time and location of each concert is usually announced at the last minute and spread by word of mouth to avoid drawing the attention of Islamic extremists who consider music sacrilegious and might stage an attack.

That the orchestra performs at all is a miracle. Its library and many of its instruments were destroyed in the looting that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime more than five years ago. But donations arrived from around the world to replace the collection.

The musicians have received numerous death threats.

Haider Raad, a 26-year-old violinist, said he usually hides his instrument case in a black plastic bag, disguised as trash. "This is the reality," he said. "We are afraid."

Other instruments are less easy to conceal. An electronic keyboard filled in Wednesday for a harp and piano.

Only a small fraction of parliament's members attended the performance.

Dhafir Ani, a representative from the main Sunni Muslim political alliance, said his attendance was "a form of resistance against extreme religious thoughts."

For many, it was a reminder of a more peaceful time.

"Iraq is the meeting point for all cultures, said Muna Zalzala, a member of the main Shiite Muslim alliance. "This is a sign that they can collaborate, just like now: The [different] music has met here."

As the last notes washed across the cavernous hall, the audience rose to its feet in ovation. The two conductors exchanged batons in a symbol of unity and hugged each other.

"I'm too excited," Wasfi said, as friends gathered round to congratulate him. "I would like to repeat the whole thing."



Times staff writer Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Monday, May 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction Iraqi orchestra: An article in Thursday's Section A about a concert the previous day in Baghdad said Oliver Gilmour was the first international guest conductor to perform with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Two international guest conductors had performed with the orchestra in the northern city of Irbil in July 2007.
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