Meet the bravest orchestra in the world. The superlative seems justified for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.
When the musicians are at home, they play quietly to avoid upsetting fundamentalists opposed to western music. They have to hide their instruments so they don’t get smashed. Rehearsals have been disrupted by car bombings and power cuts. They face sectarian prejudice against a group including both Arabs and Kurds, men and women.
The self-taught players are facing the challenge of a foreign tour, reaching London on Aug. 28 after a two-week stay in Scotland. As well as works by Iraqi composers, they’ll be performing Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony and Faure’s “Elegie” with star guest Julian Lloyd Webber.
I meet up with the 61-year-old cellist in London’s Kensington. He’s just emerged blinking from a long solo practice session in his studio, and looks tired and happy in a rumpled linen jacket.
“I do a lot of work with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, who are working with the Iraqis in Scotland,” he says. “When they asked me a few years ago about this concert, I knew immediately I’d love to do it. It just shows that music can be an amazing way of bringing people together, even people who’ve suffered appallingly.”
I mention Daniel Barenboim’s groundbreaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as a model.
“You see it all the time,” he says. “When young players come to work together in an orchestra, they realize that the whole is greater than them as individuals. They lose the competitive thing, the animosity.”
The orchestra was founded four years ago by pianist Zuhal Sultan, who was then 17 years old. With the help of the British Council, she recruited Cologne-based Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin.
Each year the participants send in audition clips via YouTube, and then meet to rehearse.
“The students are so keen to learn,” MacAlindin says. “When they meet a real-life teacher, you can see their sheer hunger. The British tutors all say that they can only dream about getting students who are so motivated.”
MacAlindin tells me how he encountered conflict between the Arabs and Kurds.
“In the first week there was a lot of suspicion. Then the ice broke, and they realized they had to work together.”
Their concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow are supported by the Scottish government, which used 1.5 million pounds of a 13.9 million pound confiscation order against the Weir Group Plc. engineering company for breaching United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
Lloyd Webber is also chairman of the “In Harmony Sistema England” project, based on the Venezuelan organization promoting orchestral playing.
“In Liverpool we encouraged a whole school, including the chef and caretakers, to play together,” he says. “After the first year literacy and maths results had improved dramatically. Music really has a power to change people.”
He says Faure’s “Elegie” “expresses how I feel about what’s happened in Iraq. We can never forget that a lot of people have lost their lives on all sides of the conflict.”
Julian Lloyd Webber performs with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq on Aug. 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Information: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk and http://www.musicians4harmony.org/nyoi.html.
Before that, there are two concerts in Scotland: Aug. 25 at the Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow (http://www.rcs.ac.uk), and Aug. 26 at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (http://www.greyfriarskirk.com)
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on history.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)