The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

Mike Lawson • • May 12, 2017

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That Sunday evening, Gudrun from the German Friends of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, Najat Amin, our Kurdish composer and all the key players and staff from the orchestra met Zuhal and me at a cafe across from the Grand Theatre de Provence to talk about our future.

I gave them the update on our plans for America. Our cards were good. We had some support from Carnegie Hall and the newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the USA. Queens College New York also opened their doors to us for next year’s summer residency. But we still needed a huge amount of money, a project banker, project management and a tour organizer. We still had no organization in Baghdad, there was little that the German Friends could do to raise money for an American tour, and I couldn’t keep going on like this. Frankly, I should have given up years ago. Life would be so much better if I had.

We sat. We talked. We brainstormed. In a couple of hours, we came up with a list of things to do back in Iraq to get money. We knew how futile this was, but America was such a pinnacle to our achievements so far, it was worth pulling together in one mammoth effort to break through. I hoped this would be the project to forge our organizational ability once and for all.

As Shwan translated everything for the Kurds, Waleed nodded. Our orchestra, forever complex, had to grow up and take charge of its destiny.

August the 13th arrived, the day of the concert. The German Friends came along to the afternoon rehearsal with Georg’s Scottish terrier, Whisper. With them, they brought glad tidings of a bassoon. This had been donated from a guy who’d e-mailed me from Newcastle, and delivered it to me via a mate of his, who I met in McDonald’s, across the road from Kings Cross Station, London. Back in Cologne, the German Bassoon Association paid for its renovation, and seemed enthusiastic to further support Iraqi bassoonists as an endangered species. In a little ceremony that painted a thousand words, Gudrun and Georg from the German Friends asked Ahmed Abbas, our zealous second bassoon, to take it home and teach someone in Baghdad. Ahmed may not be as good as Murad, our first bassoon, but his hunger to learn certainly drove him forward, and we felt sure he was the right one to trust. Someone tipped off Murad. He appeared frozen, standing a few feet away. Samir explained the terms of the donation to Ahmed in Arabic, whilst I kept an eye on Murad, fixated on the gleaming instrument in its blue satin- lined case. His subordinate was getting a free bassoon so he could teach someone in Baghdad. In his mind, this clearly didn’t add up.

The orchestra and I rehearsed calmly and responsively that afternoon. There were no mishaps, no people disappearing, nobody was late. We rehearsed walking on and off smoothly, smiling to the public, changing the violin seating to make space for Dave’s cello next to the podium. We’d adjusted to the sound of the hall, and everything came across well. For the first time in five years, I enjoyed the rhythm of a normal general rehearsal.

We waited in relaxed readiness backstage, shared warmth between us. Standing in white tie and tails, checking my hair one last time, the artist in me overtook the fighter. Alan and the other section leaders tuned everybody meticulously in preparation for the show.

We walked confidently, smiling, onto the stage, had a quick double check for tuning and began with Mohammed Amin Ezzat’s The Magic of the East. Our lead clarinettist, Balen Qadr, coaxed melancholic cries from his solos, the strings haunting in the shadows, then intensely penetrating the auditorium with elaborate melodies. A Bedouin kaleidoscope of colors swirled through the music to the end, a tapestry of interwoven themes reaching a dizzy climax and a defiant last chord. We’d kicked off well. I put Ahmed, who normally played second bassoon, on first to give him experience in leading and soloing. He clearly had no problem being the alpha.

Then, as contrasting as one could get, we performed Najat Amin’s Anfal, evoking gas creeping through the streets of Hallabjah, the town where our deputy concertmaster, Rebaz, had grown up. The sickening pallor of the strings built into screaming panic and Saddam’s military might blazed from brass through the full orchestra. Zuhal gently tried soothing the pain as raindrops fell from her piano playing, before the music built up to another military attack. Our concertmaster, Alan, broke into a solo on his violin, improvising Kurdish music in all its microtonal bitterness, a lone grandmother’s tears pouring out as the percussion thumped bombs out of the bass drum. The fury built up once more and died slowly, gas dispersing, blasts fading into the distance. A shattered public sat in silence. After ten minutes of intense emotion, I was soaked in sweat.

Then came Dave for the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 2. He had already left our reality as we struck up the introduction. He strode deftly through the first movement, striding out to the romance of French royal ballrooms, elaborate baroque corridors and proud courtly dances. We were, in fact, performing a major romantic work for the first time ever.

The delicate second movement, our personal triumph, proved that NYOI could produce a warm sound. Dave’s syrupy tones trickled through the filigree texture of the orchestra as the players melded into a giant chamber ensemble, listening intently to every inflection, every change in timbre. Ali, our first horn, took the challenging solos in his stride, and closed his dialogue with Dave on a gently muted siren call.

The diabolic third movement galloped along at a terrifying pace, Dave furiously fiddling away at the intricate cello chords. Knotty French harmonies fell remarkably well into place: as foreign a musical language as any the players had encountered before. Murad nailed his mellifluous bassoon solos time and time again. He was on brilliant form.

After a coquettish finale, we reprieved the courtly beginning in shiny D major and reached the end, The Sun King triumphant. After the interval, the orchestra came back on for Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, our biggest challenge ever. As we began, a rich, affirmative sound flowed from the orchestra. The energy tearing out of the players took the audience aback; a visceral sound balanced to be as clear as possible so that Beethoven’s music could shine out. We could have been giving the first performance. My charisma burst forth in ways I could never-before have allowed as we locked ourselves into a fatalistic groove. Only by getting to the end together could we be released from Beethoven’s power.

In the tricky second movement, the winds weren’t as supple as I would have liked, but they still courted the strings, nodding to each other like two turtle doves, a beguiling ritual forming out of Beethoven’s simplicity. Tuq’a and the cellos inflected the chord changes gently enough not to be absurd, but clearly enough to lead the listeners through this romantic little dance.

The third movement, the Minuet and Trio, took us further into courtly dances of the 18th century. The Minuet proved no problem at all for us, but the trio, with Johann on second horn and Ali on first, proved too scary, and after a few notes, Ali stopped playing. Balen Qadr, taking the tricky clarinet counterpoint, nailed that top note time and time again: a note Dougie had shown him how to get and which his teacher in Kurdistan said didn’t exist. We were all immensely proud of him for taking the risk and making it work.

We took the mercurial fourth movement at a good lick, but I soon started fighting the resistance of the trumpets and timpani, who just sat unresponsively like meat pies in the middle of the sound. My job simply became to keep the momentum up and stop us from slacking into a mediocre gallop. We did manage to keep that up all the way through to the end and, in the last few notes, with the basses led by Samir rising triumphantly to a pinnacle, the symphony ended. We got a huge cheer, and the audience rose to their feet.

I had played as cool and in control as I dared throughout. More impactful than the concert itself came the realization amongst the players that they were a generational movement. They knew they would never attain the standard of the other orchestras, but they could prepare the way for their children to grow up in a more positive musical world, if their country were ever left in peace. Together, we had changed France’s view of Iraq, and France had changed the players’ view of themselves for good.

Editor’s Note: SBO is pleased to present this excerpt from the riveting story of one man’s quest to restore the symphonic music performances opportunities for the young musicians from war-torn Iraq.


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