The Iraqi National Symphony Comes Out Of Hiding Musicians in the covert orchestra used to hide their instruments when traveling to and from practice for fear of Islamic militants who considered music un-Islamic. Now, the orchestra's 90 members can carry their instruments openly. Their most recent performance featured a 13-year-old American piano prodigy and took place in the green zone.
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The Iraqi National Symphony Comes Out Of Hiding

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The Iraqi National Symphony Comes Out Of Hiding

The Iraqi National Symphony Comes Out Of Hiding

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra is making a slow comeback. Throughout the U.S.-led invasion and sectarian violence that followed, this symphony continued to practice and perform intermittently. Now with improved security, the symphony performs regularly.

NPR's Susannah George reports.

SUSANNAH GEORGE: Just hours before the concert is set to begin, the orchestra is rehearsing. The conductor, Karim Wasfi, a cellist himself, is giving the string section a hard time about the tempo.

Mr. KARIM WASFI (Conductor, Iraqi National Symphony): Ba-baram-baram-baram-baram-ba-bum-ba-bum.

GEORGE: Wasfi has been with the orchestra for the past 25 years. He became its conductor in 2005, when the country was reeling from brutal sectarian violence. Wasfi credits the tough times for some of the orchestra's success.

Mr. WASFI: When there's such stressful rehearsing circumstances, when you perform it's actually much better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GEORGE: The hardships orchestra members face here would astonish most classical musicians. Pianist Ahmed Mahmood says he remembers when Islamist militants threatened some musicians just for carrying their instruments in public. This made getting to practice difficult.

Mr. AHMED MAHMOOD (Pianist): I know one of them. He was bringing his violin, he would hide it in the back of the trunk of the car, not to know that he has a violin.

GEORGE: Nowadays, the musicians carry their instruments openly and the orchestra has grown to 90 members, nearly double the membership during the height of the violence.

This evening's performance featured a special guest. Pianist Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner is a 13-year-old American prodigy who has performed around the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GEORGE: He says he jumped at the chance to play in Iraq and was instantly impressed by the trials and tribulations the Iraqi musicians had faced.

Mr. LLEWELLYN KINGMAN SANCHEZ WERNER (Pianist): It takes a lot of courage. The fact that they are willing to risk their lives and risk their safety to just come together and play this music, I think is amazing.

GEORGE: Although the event was open to the public, it was held inside Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone - a convenient location for U.S. embassy staff and Iraqi politicians. But for Iraqis who live outside its walls, getting inside meant running an obstacle course of security checks.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

GEORGE: Conductor Wasfi says he rarely allows logistical hurdles to keep his symphony from an opportunity to perform.

Mr. WASFI: The way to fight back is to function. If I decided to stop a rehearsal because of a delay or because of an explosion, then I think I'm not giving back properly to the nation, or to the society, or to humanity.

GEORGE: Susannah George, NPR News, Baghdad.

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