World's bravest orchestra defies the bombers

The scene of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. Photo / AP
The scene of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. Photo / AP

It has been dubbed the "bravest orchestra in the world". Members of Iraq's National Youth Orchestra have had to run the gauntlet of car bombs and other forms of violence to get to rehearsals - that is, if they weren't banned from playing outright.

They have had to disguise their instruments to avoid being stopped by fundamentalists opposed to "Western" music. Even in the relative safety of their own homes they play quietly to avoid attracting attention.

But next week, after defying the odds, they will give their first performances outside Iraq. The 45-strong orchestra will accompany the world-renowned British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber at concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Iraq once had a rich classical music tradition: in 1948, it formed the first national orchestra in the Middle East and founded the region's first music school in Baghdad.

However, it suffered during years of war and rule by Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. Many of the finest musicians fled abroad.

When violence again consumed the country after the US-led invasion of 2003, the fate of those who had remained was uncertain. They risked retribution from fundamentalists opposed to classical music and watched as concert venues were closed down.

Despite this, in 2008, a then 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan, a pianist from Baghdad, set about recruiting members for the country's first youth orchestra.

"I thought it would be great for Iraq to have a youth orchestra that inspires Iraqis but also sets out a positive image about the country, which has been lacking over the past seven years. What else better than music and young people on one stage?" asks Ms Sultan.

The British Council in Iraq and a Scottish conductor, Paul MacAlindin, lent support and gradually the hope for a youth orchestra gained ground.

Since the country remains a dangerous place to travel, potential members were auditioned over the internet and a phone-video service. There were more than 100 applications in the first year alone.

One of the biggest challenges facing the conductor was to get the musicians to play louder. "Our trumpeters have taught themselves to hold back"Mr MacAlindin says. "We're trying to decondition them so that they can play with openness, expression and joy, not fear."

Despite significant improvements in Iraq's security, rehearsals posed enormous difficulties. "The orchestra is safer in the Kurdish towns in the north of the country, so the first year we rehearsed in Sulaymaniyah, the second time it was Arbela," Mr MacAlindin explains.

"We've never tried to get to Baghdad as it's still less safe than the north. It's always an aim to go there, we just don't know when."

The musicians, who are currently rehearsing in Edinburgh with several members of the Scottish Youth Orchestra, will also play in London. They will perform pieces by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Tchaikovsky.


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