The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed recently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It was their first appearance outside Iraq in eleven years. Among those in attendance was President George W. Bush:
“It’s very interesting that the Iraqi Symphony is made up of people who are Shia and Sunni and Armenian and Kurdish. They work for one thing, and that is a unified sound, a beautiful sound. And that’s the country that is now emerging in Iraq, a country that will work together and recognize everybody’s rights.”
Formed in 1959, the orchestra was abolished by the Iraqi Minister of Culture in 1962, but rehearsed in private until 1970. Over the next decade, the symphony orchestra performed several times outside Iraq and hosted guest musicians and conductors from many other countries. But, “After 1979, when Saddam Hussein took power,” said Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the orchestra’s conductor, the orchestra “went through a catastrophe. All aspects of culture were neglected."
Once Saddam’s regime was removed, the orchestra was reconstituted and gave a concert in Baghdad in June. New musicians were recruited and the orchestra gave several more concerts in northern Iraq. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra demonstrates that its ability to keep music alive through very difficult times is an affirmation that they have survived Saddam Hussein.
“Despite the tough life conditions,” says Mohammed Amin Ezzat, the orchestra’s conductor, the musicians “have a chance to show the world that Iraqis are able to enjoy music and perform music, both Iraqi and classical music.”
“Our objective is not [just] to come here and play music,” says cellist Muntha Jamil Hafidh, “but to play music through our point of view and the way we understand it.... We want to learn about different musicians and different conductors and how they train and how they go about their work.”
Progress is being made in Iraq. “There’s more to do, obviously,” said President Bush, “but the fact that the Iraqi Symphony is here and entertaining Americans is a sign of that progress.”