I recently came across Melik Kaylan's article in the Wall Street Journal chronicling the work of Maestro Karim Wasfi, Music Director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. As musicians, we often speak about the unifying power of music, but seldom does this power present itself with such clarity as in the case of the INSO.
Kaylan writes that in 2008, the orchestra was "Underfunded and under siege from violent incidents, electricity cuts,
cracking instruments, pitiful wages, stolen sheet music, and decaying
buildings and sound systems..." but "kept going with no stable venue in which to rehearse or perform."While it is not my intention to belittle the collective bargaining struggles of orchestral musicians in this country, the tale of the INSO certainly provides perspective.
As the war in Iraq winds down, times have improved for the Baghdad-based ensemble. Wasfi says in his interview "I'm now able to struggle with artistic quality—getting the music right—rather than logistics or mere survival." He also mentions the orchestra's youth program.
One of the most remarkable subjects Wasfi discusses is the diversity within his group. The INSO comprises "every sect... Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, [and] Kurds." Especially in a part of the world where religious intolerance and fanaticism fans the flames of political unrest, Wasfi's orchestra serves as a beacon of tolerance and understanding. The Meastro even notes that after a nearby car bomb caused damage to the orchestra's rehearsal space last winter, "the perpetrators... left a message on a website apologizing for damaging us accidentally."
When people ask musicians what we mean when we employ poetic phrases such as "unity through humanity" in the advocacy of our craft, I can think of no better explanation than the example of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. If a musical ensemble can construct a sense of community and acceptance in what has been the world's most prominent war zone for the last decade, then it can do so anywhere.