The Cellist of Baghdad (, 9/11/2008)

“Our orchestra is a tool for refining the culture. Classical music is not merely an entertainment opportunity. It can teach how to manage disagreements, how a civilized person functions in life.”

So far Karim Wasfi, the musical director and co-conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO), sounds like many other earnest spokesmen for classical music around the world. But his next remark suggests the depth of the obstacles he contends with daily:

“Our orchestra can show people in Iraq why they should love life, not death.” In the U.S., we don’t necessarily worry that those unfamiliar with classical music might become suicide bombers. But in Iraq, life is lived at a higher pitch.

“Our audience prefers more romantic, fiery, flamboyant compositions. Not so much Mozart and Hayden. Next season, I am introducing Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler,” says Wasfi, a tall, powerfully built 36 year old whose own tastes run to Stravinsky, Brahms, late Beethoven and Mahler.

The 75 musicians of the INSO range in age from 25 to 75 and include five women and representatives of nearly all of Iraq’s ethnic groups, including Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Shiite and Sunni Arabs. Their music director readily admits that, at this time, the INSO is not a world-class ensemble for the classical repertoire.

The INSO’s 75 musicians include graduates of Iraq’s Conservatory and Ballet School, and a brass section mainly from Army bands, together with a few talented amateurs. Many of the most skilled musicians fled to neighboring countries during the chaos of recent years.

“Some who left are coming back now, but it will take time to train a new generation. Still, we can build a brand. We can enrich our repertoire with works based on Iraqi traditional music. There’s a lot of contemporary classical music being written by Iraqis.” Wasfi’s usually stern face brightens as he adds, “We could perform a different work every month by an Iraqi.”

Recently the INSO performed at the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon for an audience of thousands of young members of the religious Dawa Party, which is linked to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Organizing a concert in Iraq these days can require some unusual measures.

“I got a fatwa stating that classical music is not haram”–forbidden under Islam–Wasfi explains. “These young people felt that they were honored by our playing for them. And they represent the future of our country. If we can get them involved with this kind of music…”

The INSO dates back to 1948 and included many Eastern bloc musicians during the years of Russian influence. “Russians would teach in the conservatory and ballet school and play in the orchestra,” he says.

His own story is the familiar one of a musical prodigy. On his father’s side, Wasfi is from a haute-bohemian clan of sayeeds (descendants of the prophet Mohammed). “My grandfather was an archaeologist, an oud player and a judge,” he recalls with a smile, referring to the string instrument often used in Middle Eastern music. His father was a famous actor and his mother an Egyptian concert pianist; Wasfi himself was trained as a cellist by Russian teachers from the age of six on. Janos Starker was an early influence.

By thirteen, Wasfi had become a cellist in the INSO, earning about $700 a week. In his early twenties, he taught at the Cairo Conservatory along with his mother. A visiting musician from Indiana University told Wasfi that Janos Starker was still alive and teaching there, and the pull of studying with his childhood idol was too strong to resist. While in the U.S., Wasfi obtained American citizenship and studied political science as well as music. He returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion to lead the INSO.

This task has been every bit as exhausting and frightening as news reports from Iraq might suggest, but Wasfi dwells on the positive. “We have only lost one musician, and he wasn’t targeted for being with us–he died in a car bombing. But in certain neighborhoods you still cannot walk around with your instrument in a hard case, you have to hide it.”

Lately things having been looking up for Iraq and the INSO. The musicians received a much-needed raise to $900 a month–a middle-class income in Iraq–as part of an annual $1.2 million budget from the Ministry of Culture. They are still short on good quality instruments and sheet music.

The INSO is setting up a foundation in the U.S. with the hope of establishing an American board and raising tax-deductible contributions toward these needs. Wasfi also has plans for a “Babylon Music Festival 2009,” bringing the INSO together with Iraqi and international musicians playing classical, jazz, rock and techno on the site of one of the world’s oldest cities.

Today at Merkin Hall, Wasfi will be performing the U.S. premiere of a solo cello piece by his co-conductor, Mohammed Amin Ezzat. “Requiem” is an elegy for Ezzat’s late wife, Jenan, who was burned to death when the kerosene stove she was cooking on exploded. The accident took place before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but “Requiem” also commemorates the many Iraqis killed in the strife of recent years.

“‘Requiem’ was inspired by Iraqi traditional music but written for Western instruments, which convey the sad choking sound of a dying spirit,” Wasfi says. “It commemorates the fallen of both nations.”

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