Playing Host to the Afghan Youth Orchestra

Mike Lawson • Commentary • April 4, 2013

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By Amédée Williams

Many musicians and music educators ponder the age-old question: How do you get to perform at Carnegie Hall? My solution may surprise you: Make a phone call to Kabul, Afghanistan.


Last year the New York Times published a short article describing the Afghan Youth Orchestra’s desire to tour the U.S. and its need for financial support. I responded by calling the Afghan Conservatory in Kabul and offering to help. The result, after many emails and Skype conference calls, was a very unique cultural exchange.

When I told people that the AYO would be coming to Scarsdale High School, they would say: “Wait a minute – so how did this happen? You just called them In Afghanistan? How did you get the phone number? What did your school administration say?” To be completely honest, I didn’t discuss it with the administration until I was sure it was going to happen and that all of the details were worked out. When I did tell my principal, his first reaction was: “They have a youth orchestra?” Then he asked, “Are you kidding?” And finally, “So how did this happen?”

I explained that I just looked up the phone number of the Afghanistan National Music Institute and called to offer my help. After many emails, I met with William Harvey, the conductor of the AYO, when he returned to New York in August. During a two-hour dinner, we worked out the details. I agreed to host the AYO at Scarsdale High School and provide instruments, rehearsal space, and meals. It was also agreed that about 20 of the SHS orchestra students would also join the AYO in its performance at Carnegie Hall, helping to augment the string sections. There was still a big question of whether the Afghans would get visas to come to the US, but things looked good. I remember when I left the restaurant, I had this feeling of – “Yes, I got it! This is really going to happen… I just have to tell Scarsdale High School.”

Once it was clear that the AYO was indeed able to come, there was the question of money to fund the activities related to the hosting of the AYO in Scarsdale. Although the U.S. State Department, in connection with the U. S. Embassy in Kabul, had arranged funding for most of the AYO expenses for the trip and the concerts, there were other expenses that needed funding on the local level. In order to raise those funds, I held a benefit concert, featuring SHS chamber ensembles. What started out as a simple benefit concert soon turned into something much more significant.

I thought that it would be interesting if the Afghans could also watch and listen to the benefit concert live, so that the students could see each other before their arrival in the U.S. With the time difference of nine and a half hours, this required an 11 pm concert (New York time) to be viewed at 8:30 am in Kabul. The concert was streamed live over the SHS website and the students were able to Skype with each other, allowing the SHS students to hear the Afghan students’ applause. I was amazed at the excitement exhibited by the SHS orchestra students to perform a concert so late at night. Some students compared it to a midnight run. The benefit concert not only raised monies for the AYO and but also raised an awareness of the achievements of the AYO and their very challenging circumstances.

As soon as the SHS and AYO students met at the welcome dinner on February 8th, 2013, it was as if they had known each other for a long time. The interaction was just incredible. The next five days were filled with rehearsals, meals, and even an ice skating party. The Afghans, who had never ice skated before, were helped by their new Scarsdale friends. Watching them hold hands and help each other stay up on the skates was really touching. And watching them just be kids was truly remarkable.

One of the dinners in Scarsdale was hosted by five different Scarsdale orchestra families. It gave the Afghans a chance to see the inside of five American homes. The parties went late into the night, with the students singing and performing for each other. I actually drove around to each party. It was fun for me to see what was happening in my students’ homes, as well.

The five-day SHS cultural exchange concluded with a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall. The concert provided a mixture of musical styles played by both classical and Afghan instruments. William Harvey, the AYO conductor, had seamlessly arranged works by Ravel and Vivaldi to include the Afghan instruments. It was just amazing.

The fact that the Afghans were even performing music at all was truly a miracle. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the ’90s, music was completely banned. Musicians were persecuted, and instruments were destroyed along with recordings. Afghanistan had the terrible distinction of being the only place in the world where music was actually illegal. It was a very dangerous place for a musician. Most musicians who were able to sought exile. When the Taliban’s grip on power in Afghanistan came to an end in 2001, its musical culture was left in ruins. Music gradually started to make a comeback into people’s lives, but by 2009 there was still no ensemble capable of playing the Afghan national anthem.

In 2009, when Dr. Ahmad Sarmast returned to Kabul from his years of living in exile in Australia, he was asked by the Afghanistan Ministry of Education to establish the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Although Dr. Sarmast was confronted with a music building in ruins and no western instruments or orchestral music to initiate instruction, he never wavered in his belief that the school could once again thrive with musical performances in both Afghan and western styles, as it had prior to the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban. There has been and excellent documentary film made of the rebirth of the conservatory: Dr. Sarmast’s Music School (Circe films, 2012). This is a must-see for all music students.

My students viewed the film just before the Afghans arrived in New York, so they knew the importance of the concert in Carnegie Hall. They had a summary idea of the incredible struggle that the Afghans had to over come to just to get to that Hall. The tensions were extremely high when one of my rehearsals before the Afghans arrived didn’t go well. My students knew they had to do well. There was a lot of practicing, anticipation, and excitement, as well. When the moment came and we were together on that incredible stage, being thanked by Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, for our role, I knew the night would be magical.

As I watched the Afghan flags waving from the balconies in Carnegie Hall, I couldn’t help but feel that we would all be, somehow, forever changed – I know I have been. I think much less now about how I will bring my orchestra back to Carnegie Hall and instead think more about how my program can help others. As I write this, I have had two students in my office wanting to form a club to raise money for the Afghan conservatory. They wanted their program to go beyond our school. I keep telling my students that they need to think big if they want big things to happen. It turns out that they had, in fact, been listening after all.


About the Afghanistan National Institute of Music


The Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, consists of both male and female students, ages ten to 22. The faculty includes Afghan musicians, along with several U. S. musicians. One of those U. S. musicians is 30-year-old William Harvey, a Juilliard graduate and talented violinist, who is the conductor of the Afghan Youth Orchestra. It was his idea to have the AYO, augmented by American string students, perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

American born conductor and violist, Amédée Williams has performed throughout the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Ireland, and Italy. He has been a participant in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and was featured on a Young Artist Concert Series presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Mr. Williams is the author of Lillian Fuchs: First Lady of the Viola, a biography of a musician who was one of his teachers, and has contributed several articles for the new edition of the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He serves as president of The William Lincer Foundation and is a board member of The New York International Artists Association. Mr. Williams has been the orchestra director at Scarsdale High School since 2007.

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