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St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,
October 2007

Playing Vivaldi in Iraq

By Marc Thayer
29 Oct 2007

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Vice President for Education and Community Partnerships participates in the Performing Arts Academy in northern Iraq.


For ten days in July, Marc Thayer taught string and chamber music to Iraqi musicians in Erbil, located in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, as part of the Performing Arts Academy. The Academy was organized by American Voices, an arts organization engaged in worldwide musical diplomacy. With the support of the State Department, Marc joined ten fellow educators from the United States, Europe, and South America for 12-hour days teaching over 300 students from Erbil, Baghdad, and Suleimaniya, which lies in northeastern Iraq near the border with Iran. Students took part in workshops, rehearsals and a final, three-hour long performance featuring jazz, hip-hop, ballet, Broadway dance, and the orchestras of the three cities — which, together, formed the Unity Orchestra.

Marc sent dispatches back to St. Louis each day, which were posted on the SLSO blog. The following is an excerpt:

 

Day 1

Outside is like being in an oven, intense sun and dry. Thirty-minute drive to Hotel Khanzad, escorted from the airport to the hotel with armed guys in our van and armed soldiers in open van ahead of us with machine guns, through checkpoints and cement barriers at airport and hotel. Beautiful, barren, brown mountains in background behind hotel …

Next off to the Erbil Tower Hotel where the Iraqi musicians are staying. Too bad we're not at the same hotel, but we're not supposed to go into the town at all or to their hotel, so don't tell the State Department. The Iraqis are eating in a big hot room, but the hotel owner takes us to a private room with chopped salads already on the table. Delicious food: buffet included roast chicken, ground lamb, rice, chicken soup, great hummus and fresh bread, veggies, red cabbage with parsley, chicken with tomatoes and onions, three types of melon …

Introductions made by John Ferguson, executive director of American Voices. Orchestras from Suly and Baghdad are present so far, plus students and dance groups. The only young kids are dancers from a professional folk-dance group from Baghdad. John passes out security badges needed to get into the Ministry of Culture. People have lots of spirit, talking a lot, smoking a lot, many strikingly beautiful people. John says we are the first foreigners many of them have seen, especially the Kurds, who were so isolated. Eastern and western Kurds don't get along — and they all don't like the southern Iraqis, but they seem to be on good behavior.

 

Day 2

Takes a long time for everyone to go through metal detectors, get frisked, and have all their bags and cases searched. Every inch of my violin and violin case is searched by a guard in camouflage, guns nearby. Chaos at the hall with almost three hundred people speaking three or more languages. General meeting in big hall with everyone to discuss schedule. Everything has to be translated twice into Kurdish and Arabic, then we split up into three orchestras …

The students all play very well but don't sight-read well and don't have any experience playing as an ensemble, looking and listening to each other and communicating without talking. No translator is there with me … so it's really a lesson in non-verbal communication. And what a thrill to teach them their first Mozart quartet! A violist wasn't there at the moment so I play the part as much as I can … trying to say a few words now and then and looking at the mosque and guards outside the window.

After a while, they can play the first and third movements and want to play it in the concert if I'll play the viola part, but I don't think that's going to happen. Then we play some of "Spring" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. That is relatively successful and they all want to play my violin; then they want me to play their violins …

 

Day 3

The Suly orchestra sets up in the lobby and does two movements of Grieg Holberg Suite very well, much better than first day. Zana Jalal, principal second violin, asks to play Vitali Chaconne and all I can think of is Anastasia Jempelis [renowned violinist, teacher, and advocate for the Suzuki Method]. His wife, Rezhwan, translates for me. She's a violist. He plays very well, no real technical problems. I let him use the Baroque bow and talk about differences in styles of playing. He says he has only played for seven years, but there is not a good teacher in their town. It's amazing how well he plays …

 


Day 4

The Baghdad concertmaster insists that I sit in his chair today and I argue with him but there is no changing their minds — objecting is just a formality. So I lead the rehearsal of the Unity Orchestra and then the Baghdad Orchestra all day. What a thrill! People couldn't be nicer, asking for fingerings, technical help, want me to play their violins, ask me if their violins are OK. What can I say? Most need everything to be replaced, adjusted. They're not good instruments, but it's incredible what they do with them. Someone said his E string was three years old; I don't know why it hasn't broken …

 

Day 5

I work with the Erbil orchestra a lot today: Bach Air, Haydn Quartet … When I'm talking to them I feel like I'm in a double echo room with two people interpreting into two languages. I wish I could tell what they are saying, because from the looks on people's faces it must not be what I said. I wish I knew what I was telling people …

I meet a violin maker today from Suly. His instruments look good but don't sound so good. He was a farmer and taught himself to make instruments by copying others. His first violin was plastic since he had no money for materials, but now he makes many violins and other instruments, some with interesting carved scrolls, animals, women, crazy ones. He would like help getting to Europe or the United States to study. We tell him we'll contact a luthier association to see if they can help with funding …

 

Day 7

During rehearsal this morning a film crew came into the hall and most of the Baghdad musicians walk out, some cursing and yelling. The fear is that it could get on Iraqi TV and they could be harassed or worse. Cooperating with Americans or anyone else can be seen as traitorous. The Kurds weren't bothered at all and quickly filled in the empty seats. One of the Baghdad horn players' brothers was kidnapped recently, most have lost someone or had a kidnapping in the family, and most hide their instruments when walking around. Some instruments have been destroyed.

Day 8

The Unity Orchestra is doing a piece called "Pass By Us When You Leave," conducted by the Baghdad conductor. It's a slow Arabic theme with variations. What a beautiful and melancholy name.

Nagat Amin, the Suly conductor, is conducting his own composition called the Vikings Symphony, interesting piece, almost minimalist with three continuous movements. Not going very well, though: the winds don't count, they just come in when they think it sounds right. This leads to a few tense moments between the (Arabic) winds and the (Kurdish) conductor. Wish I could understand everything, sounds colorful.

Then I work with the first clarinetist from the Mozart quintet. His name is Mariwan. He barely speaks any English, so we have a lesson in pantomime, imitating sound, trying to get him to soften his sound and make it rounder, less bright for the Mozart. Nice guy. He gives me a letter translated by his sister into English asking how he might come to study music in the United States and asking that I not forget him. He says in five years of studying clarinet no teacher ever told him he did something well, so he's grateful. After two days with him, 20 minutes each, he acts like we've worked together for years.

 

Day 10 - Concert Day

Security is all over the place. Body guards with all the diplomats and at all the doors and windows. Bomb-sniffing dogs throughout the hall, sharp shooters on the roof, machine guns and camouflage everywhere. Also TV cameras in abundance, both nights of concerts have been broadcast live on Kurdish TV.

The concert is three hours long. Vivaldi's Fourth Violin Concerto goes well. Small problem in the middle, but it doesn't stop us. The guys wanted white shirts without ties or jackets, open collars, so some of them look like '70s disco dancers. They worked hard and developed a nice Baroque style. Wish we had more time. A dozen people asked for scores and parts for the Vivaldi so I kept the copy guy busy. We bought the copier for the festival for $400 and it was located in the middle of the main hallway. It will be donated by John Ferguson to the Erbil Orchestra and should be a big benefit for them.

The Erbil Orchestra performs the Bach Air and survives without incident. The Iraqi National Symphony does an Ellington Medley conducted by Demetrius Fuller, and the Requiem for Cello written and conducted by their conductor, Mohammed Amin, goes quite well. They gave me a score and parts, really a good piece.

The Suleimanya Orchestra sounds great on the first and second movements of Grieg's Holberg Suite and a small youth orchestra does well with an Arabic song conducted by [Musicians for Harmony founder] Allegra Klein …

David Handel and the Unity Orchestra finish the program with the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. One of the Baghdad violinists says they play that every New Year's Eve …

During the concert, one of the second violinists answers his cell phone between pieces and talks for awhile, not that anyone in the audience could see him with so many on stage …

Finally I get on a bus with the Suly folks to go to their hotel, dancing and singing in the aisle of the bus. Zana gives me a lapel pin of the Kurdish flag and says I'm an honorary Kurd, maybe the nicest gift I've gotten all week …

Everyone is at the hotel in the banquet room area and it's hotter than hell even with the AC on … Then the dancing starts again and singing and chanting, long lines of people two-stepping sideways in big circles, people break away and dance inside the circles when the spirit grabs them, different kinds of music, everyone holding hands, sweating, moving quickly throughout the large room, no hang-ups or insecurities, just fun, freedom, exhilaration. Kurdish music, rock, R&B, very loud, everyone is drenched in sweat … I wish this could last all night, but finally some mellow music comes and some of the jazz musicians play along and improvise while the rest are talking … .

I keep telling people I'll do my best to return, next time to Suly, but I think it's hard for them to believe. Many feel this is the last time we'll see each other so there are lots of tears and hugs … I've never been so close to tears so many times in a week …

 

Marc Thayer is the Vice President for Education and Community Partnerships of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.





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