Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra Back on Tour After 14-Year Hiatus
Fourteen years after its last road trip, to neighboring Jordan in 1992, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra once again is going on tour. At press time, the ensemble was scheduled to join the (U.S.) National Symphony Orchestra on December 9 at a joint concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president and a cultural ambassador for the Department of State, made the announcement in late September shortly after returning from a three-day visit to Baghdad. While in Iraq, Kaiser attended two private performances by the orchestra’s chamber-music ensemble and the full orchestra. A pair of machine-gun placements guarded the makeshift concert hall. Kaiser has described the experience as "surreal."
At the Kennedy Center, the Iraqi orchestra will perform with National Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "I believe the people of Iraq deserve a thriving arts community. The arts organizations and artists in Iraq will require a plan for future development. I hope these first conversations set the stage for an ongoing dialogue with Iraqi arts groups," says Kaiser.
The Iraqi National Symphony has weathered its share of hardship. According to a BBC report, conductor Abdel Razzak Al-Azzawi lost two children in an Iranian missile attack in 1995. Hashim Sharaf, the symphony's director, lost a finger in the recent war and several colleagues who fled Baghdad during the coalition bombing have failed to return.
Last June, the 55-member semiprofessional orchestra brought tears to an audience when it reemerged at Baghdad’s convention center playing the patriotic song "My Nation," which predated Saddam Hussein's rule and had been banned. Al-Azzawi has said the song is an affirmation of independence and pride. It was scheduled to be on the December 9 program.