The corpses began to stink – and the rehearsal went on

The corpses began to stink – and the rehearsal went on


norman lebrecht

October 17, 2011

I was chatting last night at DCMM-2011 to Karim Wasfi, conductor, director general and cello soloist of the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra. He regenerated the orchestra under government auspices in 2004 and played on through car bombs and other horrors, telling the players that they were the nation’s hope of normality.

Musicians often came late, held up at barricades or scenes of outrage, but rehearsals started on time and proceeded regardless. The worst, said Karim, was when the power wnent down for three days and the morgue across the road wafted across sickening smells of decomposing bodies.

And the music played on.

Today, the INSO has 140 musicians and gives two classical concerts a month.

Karim Wasfi Cello soloist Karim Wasfi performs the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra May 21, 2008 in the Green Zone of Baghdad, Iraq.  The orchestra played a performance for a gathering of Iraqi officials and Western bureaucrats working in the Green Zone, playing Rossini, Dvorak, and Mussorgsky as well as a selection of Iraqi traditional music.  The orchestra is a throwback to another time in Iraq, before the US invasion, when men and women mixed easily and Western culture was celebrated rather than reviled.  The orchestra was once one of the best in Middle East, but has had few opportunities to play since the fall of the Saddam regime and onset of civil strife.

Another happy encounter was with Maria Arnaout, general director of the Damascus Opera House. She produces two operas a year and a stage musical. The last was Oliver! with real-life orphans from a state institution. Fagin was sung by a member of a heavy metal band.

Damascus Opera House

picture: Damascus Opera House

Syrian Actors Elias Ailaneh (Right), And Elie Halabi Performing Respectively In The Roles Of Oliver Twist And The Artful Dodger In The Musical ‘Oliver’ At The Opera House In Damascus. (AFP)