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Sunday, February 15, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Sweet, Sweet Sound of…What, Exactly?: The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra Goes to Washington


On the afternoon of December 9, 2003, the Kennedy Center was buzzing with activity. While the Hall of Nations is normally nearly empty on Tuesday afternoons, camera crews from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and several international outlets (including Russia’s NTV) were jostling for position that day. Rumor had it that President and Mrs. Bush would not only be attending that evening’s concert, but so would Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice. Finally, Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to deliver a speech to commemorate the occasion.

And what was the occasion? Why all the hoopla over a free, hour-and-a-half concert of classical music? Was the Bush team suddenly making the arts a priority, revisiting the Camelot of another era? Had there been a radical change of heart in the country’s power center, which lately had generally devalued “high” — or, for that matter, any kind of — art? Was this a signal that classical musicians, and other artists as well, would now receive a gracious and earnest welcome in the White House?

Hardly — although it is true that the administration recently announced that it would “seek” a $15-20 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Still, while this request, if realized, would be the NEA’s largest funding increase in two decades, the endowment’s overall budget would only equal about $140 million, down from a peak of $176 million in 1992 (the last year of the elder Bush’s tenure). Given this reality, many arts advocates privately regard this stratagem as a cynical, election-year move by the current administration. In any case, the NEA budget is (and evidently will remain) woefully small — less than 50 cents for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Even worse, direct total public spending on the arts in the United States is about $6 per capita annually (Arts Council of England report, 1998) whereas, in Germany, for example, total federal, länder, and local expenditure on the arts is about $85 per capita per year (NEA report, 2000).

To get back to the December event, however, what caused all the excitement was the fact that it was a joint performance by the Baghdad-based Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) and Washington’s own National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), conducted by NSO music director Leonard Slatkin and the INSO’s musical head, Mohammed Amin Ezzat, with a guest appearance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of classical music’s few contemporary superstars. What was billed as a concert of Beethoven, Bizet, Fauré, and traditional and contemporary Iraqi works — that is, a musical bridging of cultures — became, instead, a triumphal artistic celebration for the “coalition of the willing,” a “positive” human-interest story emerging from the Mesopotamian morass.

The concert was held at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, which seats approximately 2,400 persons. On this evening, the hall was packed with senators and congressmen, military personnel (some with gleaming medals on their chests), higher-ups from various government departments, a small number of Iraqis, and many press people. Although there must have been a few loners who had come just to hear the music, before the concert began it was clear that the audience that was standing about chatting and mingling was mostly made up of people from, or connected to, government who knew each other. Still, despite the clubby atmosphere, security was very tight. About an hour and a half before curtain time, the audience began lining up for a screening process that included being ushered through an airport-style x-ray machine. Between the security check and the long speeches by the president of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser, and Secretary Powell, the concert extended well beyond the scheduled time and I, regretfully, had to duck out of the hall before it was over to catch the train back to New York.

With few, very prominent and carefully selected, exceptions (such as ABC’s Nightline and PBS’s All Things Considered), the majority of the press (myself included) was barred from interviewing any artist involved with the concert. Ayad Rahim wrote an excellent piece for The Wall Street Journal describing his own maddening and fruitless efforts to reach the musicians, even though his cousin is the newly appointed Iraqi ambassador to the United States (see www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110004412). Not surprisingly, therefore, most of the press interest came not from the music and arts journalists, but from the reporters on the political beat; indeed, despite the strains of Beethoven and Bizet, this was a photo-op for the US war, complete with triumphalist speeches. In his pre-concert remarks, Secretary Powell told the cheering crowd that we were about to listen to “the sweet, sweet sound of freedom,” while Michael Kaiser repeatedly compared the INSO’s situation to that of South Africa’s theater community (!) during and just after apartheid.

Despite the presence of an Arabic translator on stage during the introductory comments, however, not one Iraqi musician spoke; neither did Slatkin or Ma. The rationale for the joint orchestras’ repertoire choices, too, was left to the imagination as there were no notes provided to give a context to the program. Indeed, the only musical description was that of the indigenous instruments used by the Iraqis in their pieces — which were specifically identified as “Kurdish” although many ethnic groups in the region play them.

Considering the occasion and the audience, it probably didn’t matter much on this particular evening, but the combined orchestras desperately needed more rehearsal. The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra has had a hard time of it, and it showed in their playing; the dire circumstances Iraqi musicians have faced over decades have left them in an unenviable position in relation to their international colleagues. Currently, the INSO is settling into a new space at the Baghdad Convention Center following the destruction — by fire and by bombing during the “liberation,” respectively — of their two previous homes. Vandalism has been a fact of life for the orchestra as well; after this trip to Washington was announced, yet another round of vandalism struck the school where many INSO players teach.

Until very recently, the INSO had only 40 sets of published music, all composed before 1875 and little of it acquired after 1960. This dearth has been partially relieved by a recent and very successful drive organized this past fall by the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) to collect scores and parts for the musicians; these donations will not only be used by the INSO, but will form the core of a national music library that will lend its collection to ensembles and schools across Iraq. Along with the MOLA drive, Yamaha and Steinway (among other manufacturers) have donated sorely needed instruments to INSO, while several prominent record labels have donated hundreds of classical-music recordings to the newly formed library.

For the careful listener at the concert, there were plenty of musical clues scattered about that spoke volumes, and not always in emotional tandem. The program, for instance, opened with Beethoven’s Egmont overture, a piece with any number of grand gestures (perfect for this showy occasion). Based on Goethe’s play (itself based on an historical event), the overture encapsulates the story of a Flemish nobleman struggling against the Spanish occupation of his country who is eventually beheaded for his resistance; the parallels between the heroic Egmont and the more recent fight to unseat an unjust and cruel leader must have seemed irresistible. (Then again, playing the Egmont in this setting could well have been a subversive and coded suggestion about resisting foreign occupation.) But the most pointed statement of the evening came, without a word, from the evening’s guest soloist. Yo-Yo Ma chose Gabriel Fauré’s haunting Élégie for cello and orchestra as his contribution, in barely veiled recognition that sorrow and wistfulness inevitably accompany war’s destruction and death.

Whether performing a Dvorák concerto or a tune by Jobim, Ma has always been a most gracious collaborator, and this concert proved no exception. When various members of the orchestra took over the melodic line or had a solo, he turned in his chair to acknowledge them as his collaborators. In doing so, Ma confirmed the real truth obscured by this exploitative, Kennedy Center dog-and-pony show: on stage were serious musicians who, for decades and for the most part, have been cut off from the larger global artistic community. As such, they should be welcomed back to the fold as colleagues and peers, not as pawns in a transparent effort to make the American public feel better about the war in Iraq.

I met with Ma two months after the December concert to get his reaction to the Kennedy Center event. “We didn’t know that all those speeches were going to happen,” he said somewhat grimly. But his outlook about what this concert could mean was inspiring. “It’s not how we perceive it now that really matters,” he mused thoughtfully. “It’s how we perceive it three years from now, if we can look back and see if this was a one-off event, or actually was the seed of wonderful collaborations.” There are already discussions about Ma traveling to Iraq to perform, and the famously warm and optimistic cellist sees this as a launching-point. “All the projects that I am involved with are ultimately about relationships and friendships, and this is one more link in that chain,” Ma said. “Before the concert, I met with the INSO cello section, and that meeting — and the concert that evening — was just a starting-point. I hope that they will sow new seeds now that they have returned home.”

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at www.anastasiat.com.
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