“Art is not at the margin of life – it is in the center of many people’s lives. [Iraq] has been through so much that they need to heal. And it got me thinking about the role of art in healing,” president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Michael Kaiser, said as he and the State Department announced that the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra will play for the first time in the United States in December.

The orchestra, which was founded in 1959, will play on Dec. 9, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. Leonard Slatkin will conduct and cellist Yo-Yo Ma will be the featured soloist.

The program – which has yet to be determined – will be free to the public.

Kaiser and Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison, spent three days in Iraq in September. They toured cultural facilities and made arrangements for the first-time appearance of the Iraqi National Symphony in the United States. About 60 musicians will travel from Iraq to Washington.

The National Symphony and the Iraqi National Symphony see this performance as a way for both the United States and Iraq to heal and unify through the common bond of music.

The Iraqi National Symphony has managed to survive war, embargoes and the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Although it was forced to stop performing for two months during the Gulf War, and briefly during other times of turmoil, the orchestra has continued to thrive. Though the orchestra’s last tour was in 1992, the Iraqi National Symphony toured the Middle East and Russia during the ’70s and ’80s.

The orchestra’s members have not escaped the tragedies of their country. The conductor, Abdel Razzak Al-Azzawi, lost two children in an Iranian missile attack in the mid-’90s. Hashim Sharaf, the symphony’s director, lost a finger in the country’s most recent war.

Throughout his reign, Hussein was not very supportive of the orchestra. While he supported the musicians who made music for him, in general, he tended to ignore the orchestra. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of the orchestra’s musicians fled Baghdad. The symphony ceased performing after Christmas Day, 2002, due to impending air strikes from the United States.

The orchestra resurfaced in June to give a concert at Baghdad’s convention center. In this concert, the program included a patriotic song titled, “My Nation.” This is a song that predated Hussein, who did not like the song, which is one of independence and pride. It was reported that the concert brought many attendees to tears.

“My Nation” will be played in December with the National Symphony. Al-Azzawi said, this song sends “a message to the world that we are still proud of our country and existence, which we will never sacrifice.”

The Iraqi National Symphony is a part-time group composed of both male and female musicians. These musicians must supplement the money they make from their musical careers through other means. Though some of the musicians perform in other ensembles, such as folk ensemble, others have white collar jobs.

Earlier in September, the orchestra divided itself into a full-size orchestra and a chamber orchestra and performed for members of the State Department while they were visiting Baghdad. The orchestra played music ranging from Bizet to traditional Kurdish folk music.

While Iraqi National Symphony is pleased that their ensemble and their music are being taken seriously, the State Department is hoping that the concert will help open the nation’s eyes to the courage and the persistence of the Iraqi people. Both groups are hoping that the joint concert will lead to a general understanding and unification between two countries.

“It’s through the arts that peoples get to know one another,” Kaiser said.

Gorode can be reached at kgorode@campustimes.org.

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