Music as a Common Tongue

Iraqi Symphony Joins Forces With New York Philharmonic

Volume CIV, No. 5May, 2004

Jenny Falcon

A group of musicians from Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra traveled to New York in early April and worked with members of the New York Philharmonic as part of a cultural exchange program. Annie Melconian, 23, is the youngest member of Iraq’s National Symphony. Now, the second violinist is one of seven Iraqi musicians attending master classes with members of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

Melconian says she values both the opportunity to work on technical skills and to connect with the international community of classical musicians after years of isolation in Iraq.

“It is a very good experience to see other musicians, and other conductors and how they rehearse and also all these centers,” she says. “We do not have anything like that, so we hope to get this experience into our country and try to build a new Iraq.”

The musicians worked together for five days.

The State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs sponsored the trip to follow up on a visit in December in which the full Iraq National Symphony Orchestra performed in Washington. The aim is to give the musicians a chance work on their skills and to allow the symphony’s administrators, librarians, and teachers to learn from the U.S. cultural institution.

New York Philharmonic violist Kathy Greene exchanged addresses and gifts with her Iraqi counterparts after teaching an hour-long class that she said helps with her life-long goal to bring people together through music and the arts. “I was very moved and happy to be part of a cultural coming together, which I think is extremely important in this world that we keep the channels of communication going in ways other than political ways.” said Greene. “We need to have ways of establishing the way we are all connected the way we are all human and music is one important way to do that and we need to continue to do that.”

Greene said in addition to discussing musical technique, sustaining notes and rhythmic consistency, the Iraqis gave her a lesson about traditional Iraqi folk music from Baghdad, which she found extremely difficult to play. Iraqi and Arabic music use quarter-tones.

Iraqi violinist Majid Alghazali said, “My idea, and our group, the orchestra, Iraqi National Symphony orchestra wanted to show the people around the world that we have a culture and a special music in Baghdad and we can [express it] in the same language, which is classical music, a universal language,” she says.

Like most members of the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra, Alghazali supports himself with a second job. He is also a mechanical engineer. But he says he looks forward to being part of rebuilding Iraq’s musical institutions in the years to come.

This article first appeared on the Web site of the Voice of America,