Musical Mission: The Iraqi National Symphony

December 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN, Reporter: Much about last night’s concert was familiar: A Beethoven overture, the formal setting in Washington’s Kennedy Center. But much was far from usual. Nearly 60 members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, alongside American musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra, in a performance of Western and Iraqi music. In the audience, President Bush and members of his foreign policy team. The event was sponsored by the Kennedy Center and the U.S. State Department, and billed as a cultural exchange — an attempt at literal harmony out of the confusion and sometimes violent aftermath of the Iraq war. Conductor Leonard Slatkin led the combined orchestras in the Beethoven.

LEONARD SLATKIN: I didn’t even know there was a symphony in Baghdad. It’s quite a gesture. And I think it says a lot about the power of music to communicate, especially in a particular time of trouble and turmoil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hisham Sharaf is a clarinetist and director of the Iraqi orchestra.

HISHAM SHARAF: This concert is important for me and for the orchestra to tell everybody outside Iraq there is culture in Iraq, there is good musicians in Iraq, and about the culture exchange here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Iraqi orchestra, shown here in Baghdad last month, was founded in 1959. It’s seen good times, including some international touring, and many hard times — years without regular performances, through several wars, official neglect, an international embargo that made it difficult to get new instruments or musical scores. Saddam Hussein was apparently not a great lover of classical music. At a birthday party for him in the ’90s, members of the orchestra were asked to play a Frank Sinatra tune, “My Way.” ( Music playing ) Always, says Hisham Sharaf, the orchestra was part-time; the musicians poorly paid.

HISHAM SHARAF: It’s difficult for them. They work many different jobs and they are tired when they come to rehearsal in the orchestra.


JEFFREY BROWN: It was always hard to be a musician because you had to work several jobs?


JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have another job?

HISHAM SHARAF: I have three jobs, or four.

JEFFREY BROWN: The hardship sometimes goes further than that. On the very day that American soldiers pulled down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad, shrapnel from a tank blast destroyed part of Sharaf’s house, injuring him and his mother. Both are now fine. Amid the looting that took place in Baghdad in April, the theater where the orchestra often performed was set ablaze, the school of music and ballet where many of the musicians teach was ransacked. ( Music playing ) In June, the orchestra reassembled for its first postwar concert. When they played “My Home,” an unofficial national anthem before Saddam’s reign, some in the audience wept. Then in September, Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser went to Baghdad as part of a cultural mission with the State Department.

MICHAEL KAISER: When I heard a group of chamber musicians drawn from the symphony, we had two machine gunners ten feet away from us as we heard this music. It’s beautiful music. And it really … the juxtaposition between the fear and the danger and the beautiful music was very poignant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kaiser says the idea for a formal relationship with the Iraqi musicians was his.

MICHAEL KAISER: Every person we talked to in Iraq, every person — and I met with musicians, artists, visual artists, and dancers, and theater artists, and I met with university presidents — everyone said this country has to heal from decades of pain. And in my experience, the arts help people heal in the most healthy of ways.

LEONARD SLATKIN: Use the whole bow, don’t be afraid. You know, you have all of that, use it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gathered for rehearsals in Washington, Iraqi and American musicians studied their parts and looked over each other’s instruments. Iraqi conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat rehearsed the orchestras with a group of Kurdish musicians playing traditional instruments. The Iraqis were clearly excited to meet Yo-Yo Ma, the star soloist of the concert. And Ma was equally excited. He talked to us just after the first rehearsal.

YO-YO MA: I had a fascinating hour just now. It was work as usual. You walk into a room and there are all these people, 60 I think, members of the Iraqi National Symphony ready to work. Within five minutes, I think my stand partners, two cellists, were writing things in my score saying, well, you know, “This is an up bow, this is down bow,” just sharing what we need to know and helping me out. (Music playing)

JEFFREY BROWN: But even as the rehearsals went on, a political controversy swirled. When the concert was first announced, some commentators on al Jazeera Television and in the Iraq press criticized the orchestra for playing into the hands of the Americans, presenting an appearance of harmony and normalcy when the situation in Iraq is anything but. Some in the U.S. agree. Andy Shallal is a Washington-area businessman who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We talked yesterday morning.

ANDY SHALLAL: I look at it from the perspective of an Iraqi-American, how I see it, and I feel that the orchestra is being used to advance this administration’s agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: Used how, exactly?

ANDY SHALLAI: You have the Iraqi symphony playing at the Kennedy Center, a very posh Western type of environment. You’ve got the president sitting in the box overseeing his subjects. It belies what the reality is of what’s outside of there, that 41 soldiers were injured today in a car bomb, the fact that people are having to wait two miles in line for gas in the world’s second-largest oil reserve, the fact that people are unemployed, the fact that there is no security at all on the ground. It’s a great photo-op. But I think it’s bound to come back to haunt the president this time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Introducing last night’s concert, Secretary of State Powell put the political symbolism front and center.

COLIN POWELL: President and Mrs. Bush, ladies and gentlemen, what you’re about to hear is the music of hope — the sweet, sweet sound of freedom.

JEFFREY BROWN: For their part, the musicians involved, Iraqi and American, tried to steer clear of politics and stress the power of the art itself.

HISHAM SHARAF: I think the Iraqi people like this concert, most of them they like this concert because everyone they think that we are — see the good face for Iraq — for culture of Iraq.

LEONARD SLATKIN: We’re not foolish. We know that one concert doesn’t change the world. All we can do is bring to the attention the joy, the power, the beauty of music and what it can mean for people’s souls. ( Music playing )

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent days, Steinway and Yamaha have announced they will donate new instruments to the Iraqi musicians. And an orchestra association is sending 500 new musical scores. No matter the larger politics around last night’s concert, the Iraqi musicians plan to go on making their music.