WASHINGTON, D.C.–In his opening remarks to the sold-out crowd in attendance Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to the historic event as “the music of hope; the sweet, sweet sound of freedom.”
On Tuesday, the National Symphony Orchestra, led by music director and conductor Leonard Slatkin and joined by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, shared the stage for the first time ever with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. Speaking to the audience, Slatkin said, “We are musicians, coming together from all walks of life to share what’s in our hearts … for there is no greater joy than this language of music.”
Showcasing their talents before the 2,000-member audience that also included President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, numerous other dignitaries, and many former Iraqis, emotion filled the air from the moment the musicians entered the stage. Met by spontaneous thunderous applause, cheers, and a standing ovation, it was obvious that the orchestra wasn’t prepared for the reception they received. “They were blown away,” commented Arabic interpreter Mustafa Sayid. When asked about his emotions, Iraqi violinist Luay Yousif simply said through a smile, “wonderful, very wonderful.” Another said “this was the first time we were ever able to leave Iraq without government minders watching our every move and ordering our steps.” For the first time in many of the musician’s lives, they were experiencing a small taste of freedom.
The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO), led by conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat, was founded in 1959, but abolished in 1962 by the Iraqi minister of culture. In 1970, when Tariq Aziz assumed that position, the orchestra was once again allowed to perform in public. Today, the INSO consists of 63 members, ranging in age from 23 to 72 years old, and among them are Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrian Christians, and Turkomen. There are also four female members.
At last evening’s event, they accompanied the National Symphony Orchestra in presenting five arrangements, ranging from Beethoven to Bizet. They performed two pieces by Iraqi composers, including one by the conductor himself, both reminiscent of epic scores such as Lawrence of Arabia’s.
“Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” commented my mother, Jane Phelps, an Iraqi native herself. For the other Iraqi expatriates in attendance, Tuesday night was much more than just an evening of pleasant music and composition. It was a celebration of freedom and hope for the future of their homeland.
Mar Bawai Soro, another Iraqi native and a bishop in the Assyrian church, traveled from California for the concert. “The Iraqi artists are finally redeemed from their 35 year curse and are induced into a new world that America created for them–a world of liberty, freedom, and prosperity,” Soro said as he beamed with emotion. “And by bringing the Iraqi symphony to Washington, Iraqi Americans thank President Bush and the State Department for giving us the best Christmas present we could have ever imagined.”
“It amazes me to see how far Iraqi’s have come in such a short period of time,” mom commented to me. “Never in their wildest dreams could they [the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra] have imagined that they would be here tonight–in the most powerful city in the world, performing for the President of the United States.”
Tuesday night’s performance was part of a Department of State-sponsored cultural-exchange program, thanks largely to the efforts of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Patricia S. Harrison, who traveled to Iraq in late September to meet with the INSO and other Iraqi artists.
Following the performance and reception that followed, Harrison commented to me, “Now that Saddam is gone, the Iraqi people are free to affirm their culture, their heritage. We are in awe of all they have gone through to hold on to their music. Freedom was really playing tonight.”
Iraq has indeed come a long way. Babylonia Marcus, the daughter of Iraqi parents and a graduate student at George Washington University, commented on Iraq’s progress, saying: “The diversity of the Iraqi symphony truly reflects the diversity of the Iraqi people. I was so encouraged to see four women musicians on stage–it’s the sign of a culture open to the participation of women in a region known for being so restrictive. I have a lot of hope that cultural exchanges such as these will remind us that it’s not just governments that can engage in dialogue, but people–people who share universal values of pride for their heritage, honor in professional accomplishments, and the continual struggle for self-improvement.”
Just as when the orchestra had converged onto the stage, they also received similar overwhelming applause and ovation when they took their final bows. Some were even moved to tears. One Turkish musician, as he exited stage left, turned slightly to the crowd, smiled, and gave us two thumbs up.
For anyone who attended Tuesday evening’s concert, it was certainly memorable for its music. But it was undeniably even more memorable for what was felt: the shared blessing of freedom.
–Angela J. Phelps is the producer of Concerned Women for America’s national radio program Concerned Women Today.