26. March 2007 · Comments Off · Categories: imported, News

The rehearsal space of Baghdad’s Symphony Orchestra is in the capital’s largely Shiite Shaab district. Hassam al-Din al-Ansari, aged 64, the orchestra’s composer and principal violinist, is in his office tuning his violin and improvising little arpeggios as he does. Like most in the orchestra before the invasion, he sustained his poorly paid musical career with another job, in al-Ansari’s case as a deputy manager in the Ministry of Industry.

It is an oppressive day late in September 2006. The electricity, inevitably, is down. It has been out for 40 hours, one of the musicians complains. Without a generator to light and cool the theatre, the musicians arriving to warm up before rehearsing find themselves on a stage playing in a stifling gloom peering at scores lit only by a distant skylight. In the heat, the stage smells of sweat and dust and resin.

When it becomes too dark, the musicians abandon their efforts to use the stage and cram into the kitchen, which has windows on two sides. It is instantly a pick-a-stick of competing elbows, bows, flutes, music stands, cellos and French horns.

“We are challenging the situation,” al-Ansari says with a sigh, “by trying to not be too far from the public. We are trying to put on a concert every month, but circumstances are very difficult.”

So the performances that the orchestra do put on are private and rarefied, little events for a small audience who do not have to travel very far or have their own security, and put on mainly at the city’s two subscription-only “country clubs”. Other events are by invitation only, for government officials and diplomats from the Green Zone. Even Iraq’s music has become gated.

The difficulties in assembling the musicians for rehearsal have led to another kind of fragmentation: of the very music itself. Complicated symphonies, al-Ansari admits, are too difficult to prepare, especially with no certainty that all the musicians will be able to appear. Instead, their performances are dominated by overtures, fragments of larger works and short pieces – Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. The war, too, has forced the orchestra to break into smaller units, ad hoc chamber ensembles more easy to assemble and to perform around the city when they can.

“We could just stop work. We could submit,” says al-Ansari, “but we are determined to challenge the times we live in and to do our best. In the 1950s, we used to get a lot of Russian films in Iraq. We were just talking about this a quarter of an hour ago … there was a film from the Second World War, from the battle of Leningrad, about the orchestra there that continued broadcasting on the radio through the German attack. The film showed different players and how they came to the concert and the difficulties they had because of the fighting. I feel,” he says with a sad resignation, “we are living that old film.

“It took me three hours to reach the concert that we held last Sunday. There was an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] on the road that held me up. Some of the players could not make it at all. We feel like we are battling in our own war.”

Throughout Iraq’s collapse into violence, al-Ansari has continued with his compositions, including one for oboe, two violins, viola and cello called, without irony, The Good Land. It is about Iraq. “This is still a good land,” he insists. He pauses for a moment of further consideration. “Maybe the land is good,” he adds, “but sometimes the people are not good … ”

The article deals with more than this; I thought this part might interest enough readers to get you all to check out the whole thing.
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