By Shant Shahrigian
Conductor Paul MacAlindin stood before a group of musicians ranging in age from 16 to 28. They came from across Iraq; 16 are Arabs (both Sunni and Shiite), 25 are Kurds, and four are Turkmen.
"What we have here is quite a remarkable and public and profound symbol of harmony, both in the musical and in the spiritual sense, between groups of people who, although they live in the same political entity, Iraq, know actually very little about each other," MacAlindin said.
They're getting to know each other, and they have fellow member, Zuhal Sultan to thank for that. Several years ago, the teenage pianist managed to put out an international call for a conductor and teachers to help train young Iraqi musicians.
Conductor MacAlindin responded, and went on to help Sultan organize three music training camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, staffed with professional teachers from the UK and the US. Funding came from government and private sources in Iraq and the UK.
Many of the orchestra members haven't had much in the way of formal training. They said when the war broke out in 2003, many musicians left or just stopped teaching. Sabat Hamid, a 28-year-old cellist from the northern town of Arbil, said the young musicians often had to teach themselves.
"It was very hard because we didn't have teachers to show us how to play," Hamid said. "Mozart and Beethoven are big composers, and pieces by them are hard. There was no one who could help us."
Even with the training camps, barriers remain – including language. As MacAlindin conducts, he said he relies on two translators at his side who repeat his words in Kurdish and in Arabic.
18-year-old oboist Dua'a Azawi said in spite of differences of language, culture, and religion, orchestra members have become close.
"We are all from different backgrounds, but that doesn't affect who we are," Azawi said. "We have one united background, which is music. We all play music. People have been asking me if problems have happened between you and the Kurdish, and I say no, I have very close friends, and they are Kurdish."
This weekend, the Iraqi Youth Orchestra is performing its first concert abroad. The members are playing at the Beethovenfest in Bonn. In honor of the trip, two works were commissioned for the group. One is by an Iraqi Arab composer and another by an Iraqi Kurd.
The group is on track to play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next year. MacAlindin said it is still too dangerous for them to play in Baghdad, but he hopes for a concert in the Iraqi capital within a year or two. He said the group's long-term goal is to help restart a stable musical education system in Iraq.
He said the young musicians are getting world-class teaching, and "that will turn them into the teachers of the future for Iraq."