The story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq

Between 2009 and 2014, I was the conductor and artistic director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. I first got involved when in 2008 I responded to a newspaper headline “Iraqi teen seeks maestro.” I was intrigued—but also very ignorant. Barely at peace, with no orchestral tradition that I knew of, what could there be to work with in Iraq? 

What instruments did they even have? How could it be that we in the west had heard so much about war and bloodshed in Iraq, but knew so little about who its people really were? The following year, after auditions via Skype, a promise of a bespoke piece from the late Peter Maxwell Davies, favours called in, massive logistical complexities and financial hiccups, we ran our first summer school. 

And so the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was born. In a few short years this group of young musicians came through the most difficult and dangerous time to produce fine music, not only in Iraq but also Britain, Germany and France. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of their favourite composers was Beethoven—a composer who knew plenty about troubled times. 

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is no more, thanks to Islamic State, but I’ve told our story in my forthcoming book, UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. In Glasgow in late July, I attended a concert by the Palestine Youth Orchestra, a striking example of ingenuity, passion and freedom of expression. 

Their performance struck a chord with me as I remembered my time as Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. I was struck by both the similarities and the contrasts. They are a perfect example of a properly supported and sustained conflict orchestra, bringing together Palestinians with their wider diaspora, as well as support musicians from Britain’s conservatoires. 

Side by side, they belong to the exclusive club of young people who know how intimate, exhilarating and good for bonding a youth orchestra is. When the orchestra first left the country for Beethovenfest, Bonn in 2011, its members had no idea that their fellow players from Germany were already of the highest order and discipline, embracing audiences round the world. 

They connected wonderfully with the difficult, foreign world around them. When I think of what war has done to my players, isolating them from international travel, skilled teachers and good instruments, I realise that they have been left to nourish their passion through YouTube. In those years we worked together, a cracked window of opportunity from 2009 to 2013, 

I watched these young people grow not only musically, but as humans opening up to the world. My players in Baghdad, suffering daily terrorist threats and scant public amenities, nevertheless still met monthly to play with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. Today, they play on, resilient, even after the worst bombing for years in the middle-class Karada district of Baghdad. 

The Palestine Youth Orchestra has built a large base of supporters, including that evening’s Maestra, Sian Edwards, who began with them 12 years ago. Her indomitable positivity has been a key building block in attracting strong support. I look back at the powerful supporters of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq: the British Council, Beethovenfest, Grand Theatre de Provence and the Scottish Government, to name a few. 

We put in hundreds of hours of unpaid work, and burnt through $1.4m (some of this money was supplied by foreign governments.) But we received very little from the Iraqi government. Despite the country having an annual income from oil that was as high as $100bn, they only spent $15,000 on us—they could have spent far more were it not for wealth disappearing because of corruption. 

In a sense, the government was being subsidised, as the orchestra functioned like the country’s greatest diplomat. At the Glasgow concert I sat next to Claire Docherty, violin tutor for the Palestine Youth Orchestra’s British tour as well as for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in 2012 and 2013. I joked she should get a “conflict-orchestra bonus.” 

Discussing the difference between Palestine and Iraq, we recalled my pointed rehearsal directions being translated into Sorani Kurdish and Iraqi Arabic through our interpreters, Saman and Shwan. One studying medicine, the other, air-conditioning, they stood on either side of me rattling off my musical instructions. I beseeched them to convey my passion—usually resulting in hilarity all-round. 

My dear friends, they became the best-educated lovers of classical music in Iraq. Neil Ertz, the luthier who took our violins and violas in for repair when we visited Edinburgh in 2012, mentioned their Heath-Robinson condition, the cracks in the wood and the word “KURDISTAN” painted onto the back of one of them. 

These were tangible metaphors for the fractures inside these sensitive young players. How could anyone be an artist in Iraq? For me, travelling there to direct the courses meant: put your head-down, deliver the concert and go home. I wanted little to do with Iraqi culture, and even though everyone knew I was gay—there’s not much you can hide from an Iraqi—I still felt deeply vulnerable leading Iraq’s greatest cultural diplomats while my own people were being blackmailed, kidnapped and tortured to death. 

The players, however, gave me nothing but love, commitment and respect. The guys in the orchestra deeply embraced our bromance, and held me as one of their own. Finally, I met Sian Edwards backstage. As a fellow conflict-orchestra conductor, I mentioned how we have to radically rewire our body language to communicate with players with little experience of what a conductor offers them. She understood immediately. 

I remembered the hours of gruelling rehearsal in our summer courses, the joy of helping Iraqi players fuse into an orchestra by listening, co-ordinating and reconciling. I remember their love of music: they seemed more driven than any westerner. 

Music shields them from the madness of corruption, incompetence, terrorism and injustice. I have never felt more keenly the need for musical education. I will always feel the joy that Iraq brought into my life, how it confirmed my belief in humanity. 

by Paul MacAlindin 

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