I haven’t heard about Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra for two years now, so it’s good to get an update. Here’s more about it in a New York Times blog:By Steven Lee Myers
BAGHDAD – It was achievement enough that the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra managed to survive the darkest days of the war, when it struggled for supplies and electricity, when its members fled for safety abroad and those who remained practiced in secret for fear of offending militants who considered music un-Islamic.
“We were fighting against the impending doom simply by functioning,” the orchestra’s charismatic director and chief conductor, Karim Wasfi, said the other day.
Now the orchestra finds itself “out of the bottleneck,” as Mr. Wasfi put it, facing challenges in a post-conflict society that are no less daunting for being less immediately life-threatening.
The orchestra is fighting for its budget, only now beginning to solicit corporate sponsorship in a country where the state once controlled all (and still does, if chaotically). Mr. Wasfi is lobbying to build an opera house in a country where electricity, clean water and garbage removal remain scarce services.
Hardest of all, the orchestra is trying to recreate a shared cultural life – “the concept of Iraq,” he said – that decades of isolation, international sanctions, war and sectarianism have thoroughly shattered.
“Iraq has achieved a lot, but it’s not yet on a solid, concrete foundation,” Mr. Wasfi said. “Stability is not related just to people not killing each other.”
The New York Times’s Edward Wong wrote movingly about the orchestra nearly three years ago , a time when sectarian bloodshed seemed to threaten its very mission: to give a troubled nation succor through music.
Even with today’s vastly improved security, the orchestra’s home in a former royal concert hall near the edge of the Old City still feels like an oasis of civility and cosmopolitanism – something evident from a lone trumpeter practicing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to the full orchestra rehearsing Dvorak’s “New World” symphony.
At the height of the sectarian bloodshed in 2006 and 2007 the orchestra dwindled to just 43 members; violence and checkpoints meant as few as 17 made it to some rehearsals.
There are 85 members now, including 13 who recently returned from self-exile in Syria and the United Arab Emirates. (During rehearsal Mr. Wasfi chided one whose playing was off, “Are you thinking of Syria?”) The dearth of musicians also forced the orchestra to find and train aspiring young people; the youngest member is only 15. Mr. Wasfi dreams of building a full philharmonic orchestra with 120 players.
Its foundation seems firm at last. The Ministry of Culture pays the members’ salaries, the equivalent of roughly $1,000 a month. Members carry their instruments openly into the concert hall. The orchestra has 14 concerts planned in the coming year, as well as 10 chamber performances, around the country.
The most recent was July 16 in Sulaimaniya, in the northern Kurdish region, sponsored by Asiacell, a mobile telephone company, which will cover its travel costs. The playlist included Verdi, Liszt, Strauss, Webber, Gershwin and Dvorak, as well as Iraqi classical music.
For the first time, Mr. Wasfi has even negotiated performances in the next year in the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, where conservative religious values still dominate. “There’s no indecent music,” he said, explaining his delicate negotiations with religious leaders there.
Iraq remains a troubled place, but the orchestra should be a bridge to a better future, as he explained, “when we have an opera house, when attending a performance and opening a gallery is part of your normal life, when political leaders fight in the parliament and not in the streets, when they set aside their differences and attend a concert.”