National Symphony/Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra Joint Concert, December 9, 2003


Chiseled into the marble edifice of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. is the following quote from the building’s namesake:

“I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

On the night of December 9, 2003, a triumvirate of victories were celebrated inside this same building. The victories of battle, politics and the human spirit were jointly represented when the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra joined forces with the National Symphony Orchestra onstage following a one week stay in the United States. The joint concert was sponsored in part by the Department of State’s CultureConnect, a program with the objective improved global cross-cultural understanding. The Iraqi National Symphony was the first group brought to the United States as part of the CultureConnect program. The concert was free and open to the public, as are all John F. Kennedy Center Millenium Stage performances.

Founded in 1959, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra is comprised of musicians from both of Islam’s main sects, Shiite and Sunni. There are also members of Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, Iraqi Christian and Turkman descent. Several of the orchestra’s musicians fled Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime to play with other orchestras in Europe and overseas. The orchestra’s conductor, Mohammed Amin Ezzat, fled for Sweden in 2002 but returned to Baghdad this past October to lead the orchestra once again. His life story, like so many of the other musicians who traveled with him to Washington D.C., is filled with sadness and struggle. Ezzat had sold his car, then his house, then his land in order to remain in Iraq making music. His wife perished when a kerosene heater set fire to their home four years ago. He and the orchestra musicians were paid barely $7 per month. Then, when bombs started dropping in Baghdad earlier this year, looters burned and pillaged their concert hall, the al-Rashid Theater.

I had read several articles in the Washington Post and on the Internet regarding the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) prior to their arrival in Washington D.C., so I was well aware of the horrors they had witnessed in their country and their struggle to make music in the wasteland of post-war Iraq. To my surprise, these musicians were buoyant in spirit, their smiles belying the realities back home. The Kennedy Center had issued my orchestra (the NSO) an informational sheet on Iraqi customs, with a few common phrases, such as “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “I don’t understand,” as well as tips on gesturing:

  1. Never show the bottom of your shoe/foot by crossing your legs, which is considered a profound insult.
  2. Never give the “OK” sign with your hand, also another insult
  3. and a few others

I did find myself with crossed legs at one point in rehearsal, and quickly caught myself, not wanting to offend my Iraqi guests.


The trombone players, Hussain Ali Ajeel (principal) and Fadhil Kouthir Abas (second) were already onstage warming up as I arrived for the rehearsal. National Symphony principal trombonist Milton Stevens and I represented our orchestra. Hussain Ali Ajeel is a stocky man of approximately 50 years with a heavily scarred nose and a kind of fatherly, regal comportment. He was at one time a soldier in the Iraqi Air Force, and now, in addition to his duties with the Iraqi National Symphony, teaches music in a ballet school. Fadhil Kouthir Abas, a man of the same age as Fadhil, is lean and energetic. As Milt and I took our place in the trombone section with them, we exchanged greetings with our Iraqi trombone-brothers and started to warm up. It was immediately apparent to me that some astute and compassionate individual from the Yamaha Corporation had completely outfitted the wind and brass section of the INSO with brand new instruments. The trombonists were playing on Yamaha model YSL445G, a .525 bore instrument, and judging by the way Fadhil constantly stroked the horn with the Yamaha polishing cloth, he was sure to take excellent care of this gift.

The first piece to be rehearsed was the Egmont Overture of Beethoven, a trombone-less work, so Milt and I ushered Hussain and Fadhil offstage. Both Milt and I had raided our own personal music libraries, along with some other goodies, for the Iraqi trombonists to take back to Baghdad, and this was a good opportunity to present it to them. Milt provided them with some slide cream, silicone drops and a water sprayer and instructed them on application. He also gave them a cleaning “snake” and some recordings. I gave them a compact metronome, mouthpieces, etude and exercise books (Arbans, Blazhevitch, Bordogni, Kopprasch, etc.) solos, duets, three beginning trombone methods and an Alain Trudel solo CD . I also included some bass trombone/tuba material. Evidently, the Iraqi bass trombonist could not make the trip. There is no tuba player in their orchestra. Altogether, the NSO trombone section provided for the Iraqis a stack of music at least two feet high, with NSO trombonists John Huling and James Kraft providing even more music as they arrived for the post concert reception. Hussain and Fadhil were noticeably moved by our gesture, as they explained through very limited English that there was no trombone music in Iraq . . . until now. With their right hands placed over the heart, their bows and gestures spoke volumes of their gratitude.

Back onstage now, we began to rehearse the works which used the trombone sections. INSO conductor Ezzat had composed a work for this occasion, Three Fragments, which incorporated both traditional Euro-centric and Arabic music. Yo-Yo Ma was cello soloist on Faure’s Elegie, and also played from the last orchestra cello stand when not serving as soloist. Symphonic Poem #2 of Abdulla J. Sagirma, one of the INSO violinists, was a bizarre mixture of Bohemian/Czech music and Kurdish traditional music, with direct quotes, or actual plagiarisms in this case, of Dvorak’s 8th Symphony. A traditional Iraqi tune, Over the Palm Trees was next, followed by the finale to the concert, Bizet’s Farandole from L’Arlessienne Suite #2. INSO musicians in traditional Kurdish dress also performed in some of these works, playing traditional instruments such as the daf – a goatskin drum with bells on the inside, the oud-a sort of bass lute, the santur – an Arabic autoharp, and the balaban – a cousin of the oboe which sounds strangely like a kazoo. Anyone familiar with Gunther Schuller’s famous orchestral work Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee can recall the sound of these traditional Arabic instruments. It is a very striking sonic color when juxtaposed with a symphony orchestra, and the INSO musicians performed this music brilliantly.

Meanwhile, back in the trombone section, Hussain and Fadhil were obviously enjoying themselves in this joint orchestra setting. Although his playing was at what would be considered a junior high school level in the United States, Fadhil did not hesitate to correct me on style when it came to performing the Arabic selections on the program. Hussain would give an approving nod now and then to the section. Their sense of pitch could be diplomatically described as “democratic,” and one can only hope that the combination of a peaceful Iraq and a new trombone will assist in their technical improvement. Nevertheless, they had a focus and intent on playing to the best of their ability. They were both fascinated by the Shires trombones which Milt and I play. They had never seen such beautifully crafted trombones nor had they ever seen a double-valved bass trombone before. I played them a few arpeggios in and out of the lower register deploying both valves and their jaws dropped.

Between the rehearsal and the concert, the NSO and the INSO enjoyed dinner together in one of the roof level restaurants inside the Kennedy Center. Translaters were in high demand and short supply, as musicians of both nations attempted to find out more about each other. At one point, the Iraqi musicians began distributing wrapped gifts for the NSO musicians. Fittingly, the trombones received plates made of brass from Iraq with an impression of the Tower of Babel in the center. The Kennedy Center countered with a gift bag of items for the Iraqis, including a Sony portable CD player and some NSO recordings. A few speeches were made by representatives of both orchestras, but perhaps the most moving one was made jointly by two orchestra librarians, Karen Schnakenberg of the Dallas Symphony and Marcia Farabee of the National Symphony. As members of the Major Orchestra Librarian’s Association (MOLA), they and their colleagues had collected over 500 complete sets of orchestra parts for the INSO. Also included in the MOLA donation was chamber music, vocal scores, libretti, recordings, music folders and other necessary office supplies. Also, the Yamaha Corporation and the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation are insuring that all INSO musicians will return to Baghdad with a new, high quality instrument. On top of that, we later found out that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pentagon had formed Operation Harmony in order to airlift musical instruments to Iraq.

As both orchestras returned to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to dress for the concert, we encountered heavy security due to the attendance of the President, Mrs. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. All musicians and staff passed through metal detectors and Secret Service screening before being allowed in the backstage area. Promptly at 6 p.m., both the NSO and the INSO took the stage together, to the sound of thundering applause from the packed house. Following opening remarks by J.F. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Secretary Powell (also translated into Arabic), the concert began.

After some 13 years of performing with the National Symphony Orchestra on the Kennedy Center stage, it is a rare occasion when I feel nervous or anxious about a performance. While I was feeling neither nervousness nor anxiety over this concert, I did have the sense that this was history in the making, and I was thrilled. A great good had come out of a tremendous wrong, and as is so often the case, the need for healing through music could not be denied. I was very proud to have played a role in this mitzvah. The look of gratitude on the faces of Hussain and Fadhil will remain with me forever as we said our goodbyes after the concert. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the Arban and Bordogni/Rochut books I had used since my childhood are now being used by a trombonist somewhere in Iraq, although they may be hard pressed for a literal Arabic translation of my scrawlings, “Tongue and Blow, Kid!”