President Bush, Secretary Powell welcome Iraqi musicians to Kennedy
By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- President Bush and Mrs. Bush joined a capacity crowd December 9 in welcoming the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) to the stage of the Kennedy Center concert hall for a joint concert with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra. It was the INSO's first-ever performance in the United States and its first performance outside Iraq in 11 years.
The concert was co-hosted by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was open to the public, and tickets were free. Members of the president's Cabinet and other dignitaries also attended.
The orchestras were joined by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma as guest artist.
The Iraq Orchestra "testifies to the power of the arts to keep hope alive even under the cruelest oppressors," Secretary Powell said in remarks before the start of the concert. "Arts are the stuff of the human spirit which no tyrant can crush. This wonderful orchestra is a symbol of normal life returning to the people of Iraq."
"What you are about to hear," Powell told the audience, "is the music of hope, the sweet, sweet sound of freedom."
In his welcoming remarks, Michael Kaiser said that "art has the power to teach and the power to change," and, he added, "art can help a people to heal."
During the concert, INSO conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat and National Symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin each conducted several pieces on the program, which included works by Beethoven, Bizet, and Fauré, as well as three Iraqi pieces never before performed in the United States. One premiere piece, "Three Fragments," was composed by conductor Ezzat for the Kennedy Center concert and is based on three folk songs from the southern, central, and northern parts of Iraq. Another Iraqi selection, Symphonic Poem No. 2 by contemporary composer Abdulla J. Sagirma, featured six musicians in native dress, playing traditional string and percussion instruments, the balaban, daf, santur, tar, oud, and zarib.
The opening selection, Beethoven's stirring Egmont Overture, set the dramatic tone for the historic event. The haunting melodies of the Iraqi pieces, the mournful strains of Fauré's Elégie for Cello and Orchestra, and the joyful upbeat sounds of Bizet's "Farandole" evoked the full range of emotion that the concert represented. One of the most moving moments came at the end of the Fauré Elégie, when conductor Slatkin and Yo-Yo Ma sustained a brief moment of silence before the audience erupted in applause. The entire performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Leonard Slatkin told the Kennedy Center audience that the INSO's collaboration with the Washington National Symphony has been "a remarkable two days. Musicians come together from all over the world, and we share. There's no talk of anything but music."
There has been an outpouring of support for the INSO from musicians, organizations, and corporations. The Steinway and Yamaha companies are donating new instruments, some of which will be presented to the orchestra during its Washington visit. The Major Orchestra Librarians' Associations has organized a massive donation of orchestral music, which the State Department has shipped to Iraq for the orchestra's library. Hecht's, a Washington area department store, even supplied winter coats for orchestra members to wear during their stay in chilly Washington.
On December 10, the INSO was scheduled to hold an educational event for Washington school children. Orchestra staff also will take part in seminars on orchestra administration and management organized by the Kennedy Center.
The Iraq Symphony's visit to the United States originated in September when Kaiser and Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison traveled to Iraq to meet with arts leaders and seek ways to rebuild Iraq's cultural institutions. They were so impressed by the perseverance and professionalism of symphony members that they invited the orchestra to perform for an American audience.
Formed in 1959, the INSO was abolished by the Iraqi Minister of Culture in 1962 and rehearsed underground until 1970, when it was re-established. Over the next ten years, the orchestra performed abroad and hosted guest musicians and conductors from many countries. But during the 1980s and 1990s many musicians, plagued by financial hardship, left the country to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Although its home theater was burned by looters soon after the Saddam Hussein regime fell, the orchestra performed a concert in Baghdad in June 2003 and subsequently traveled through northern Iraq, recruiting new members. Representative of the diversity of Iraq, its 63 musicians now include Shi'a, Sunni, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrian Christians, and Turkomen, as well as four women.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: