December 14, 2003

Playing for keeps

By: Eric Pfeiffer

Tuesday night the police instructions boomed out over a megaphone as I stood outside with about 50 individuals for permission to pass through the security area. After receiving clearance we hurried our way up a narrow path in rows of two and three, surrounded by barbed wire fence, motion sensitive lights, concrete barriers, and finally, metal detectors. Inside the concert hall the 55-member Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra was minutes away from beginning its performance.

However, the setting wasn’t the Baghdad Convention Center, located in
Iraq’s “Green Zone”, where the group has been rehearsing three times a week for the past several months in 100 degree plus temperatures with no air conditioning. It was the Kennedy Center, where the INSO was delivering its first oversees performance in 11 years, with assistance from the National Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

At the invitation of Paul Bremer, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser traveled to Baghdad in September and met with members of the orchestra. Kaiser described to the capacity audience how the scene had reminded him of visiting South African artists immediately after the fall of apartheid as they struggled to chart the waters of their newfound freedoms.

“As I toured Baghdad, bringing the [INSO] to America seemed less like an interesting idea and more like an important first step in changing the world,” he said. “We must learn about the Iraqi people if we are to work together.”

Teaming with Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia Harrison, the pair helped bring the event to fruition. Kaiser donated the Kennedy Center’s facilities and promotion, while State covered $200,000 for the orchestra’s transportation, lodging and assorted expenses.

The mood was unique for a classical music performance: spontaneous applause, exuberant cheers and whistles flowed from the audience, followed by repeated standing ovations. I heard at least a dozen cell-phone ringers sound off and more than one person engage in phone conversation as the orchestra played. With the president and Laura Bush watching from the balcony, I wondered if they had previously witnessed such abandon at a formal D.C. event over the past three years. At times, the mood felt less like a Kennedy Center performance than an old Rangers game back in Arlington. Only this time victory was guaranteed.

Formed in 1959, the INSO claims to be the oldest of its kind in the Arab world. Four years into its existence they were forced underground after being banned by an Iraqi cultural minister with a strong distaste for classical music. They officially reformed in 1970 when Tariq Aziz, a devotee of the genre, saw his status climb within the Ba’ath Party ranks. However, Saddam Hussein encouraged the group to lose their formal posture in favor of a more burlesque stylistic pose. They declined and were rewarded with $7 monthly salaries, 30-year-old source material, and woefully inadequate musical equipment.

Along with performing their first U.S. concert, things are rapidly changing for the INSO. Over 500 complete orchestral works and new equipment have been donated to the group in an effort headed by the U.S.-based Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association. While their old concert hall was destroyed in postwar looting, they now perform in the convention center once reserved for Ba’ath Party functions where average citizens were prohibited entrance.

Before turning the stage over to National Symphony Orchestra Director Leonard Slatkin and INSO Director Mohammed Amin Ezzat, Colin Powell declared, “Witness the historic re-entry of Iraqi culture to the world stage. This wonderful orchestra is a symbol of normal life returning to Iraq.”

Eric Pfeiffer is a writer in Washington, D.C.