Iraq and the USA - a tale of two orchestras

I've followed the National Youth Orchestra of USA since its beginning, as Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. We were in discussions early on about working together, but as our plans developed in different directions, as is often the case, our projects developed different complexions.  I'm still very fond of NYO USA, and completely understand the sheer amount of work that a national youth orchestra takes. Their team have my sympathies!

National Youth Orchestras began as a concept in 1946, with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. A post war idea to unite youth positively, and rebuild national/regional culture, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq should not have been such a surprise, as it came in on the tail of the recent Iraq war, under much the same motivations, including reconciliation between Iraq's young peoples, divided through gender, religion and race.

In our 2014 project, the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra in Illinois was to have been our partner until war returned to Iraq in the horrific form of the ISIL, a terrorist movement who have already imposed a draconian lifestyle on the city of Mosul, where one of our violinists comes from. We're talking about burkas for the women, no shaving for the men, and punishment for anything from cutting off fingers to execution for something as menial as smoking a cigarette or a water pipe. It would be wrong, and unnecessarily horrific for me to dramatise this further, but if they win, then all forms of cultural life as we, and normal decent Iraqis like us know it, are over in Iraq. Our summer camp and US tour was cancelled as the diplomatic will to surmount the problems created by the new war broke down. 

In the midst of this chaos, the moral of this youth orchestra's story is, be grateful. Be very grateful indeed. I'm gutted and shattered, but at least I live in Germany, where terrorists are not marching in to impose medieval law.

I've learnt to live with chaos, paradox and conflict, but most of all, I've learnt to work with young Iraqi musicians who are more motivated, more determined and more resilient than any music students I've ever met in the West.

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Have a great summer, everyone. And don't forget all these young musicians around the world for whom music is a lifeline.



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