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Iraqi Musician Recalls Moving Experience of Washington Concert - 2003-12-12

Earlier this week on Decenber 9, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert outside the country in more than a decade. One of its musicians describes the Washington, D.C. concert as a highly moving experience.

Samir Basim plays double bass in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. He was among those on stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as the orchestra, along with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, entertained a packed audience that included President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The combined ensemble was conducted by the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra's Mohammed Amin Ezzat and National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin. Internationally acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed a solo.

For Mr. Basim, the entire experience was very meaningful. "All the members were excited to do this performance, and it was a great night, all the members, they think they were dreaming," he recalls. "So, I think it's a beautiful night, and I think it's good for the country, for both countries."

The performance included selections by Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Faure, and Georges Bizet, as well as some Iraqi compositions. Mr. Basim points out that the program was designed to be varied.

"From the beginning, we started with L'Arlesienne Suite, it's a dance, it's for fun, and start with folklore Iraqi pieces, it's to translate our feeling to American people and to tell them what is the Iraqi culture is in music, and something like this," he said.

Founded in 1959, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra endured many hardships during the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the war that deposed him early this year, in March. The orchestra's various venues have been bombed, looted and burned. Musician Samir Basim describes some of the challenges.

"You can't find a professional theater or concert hall to play in," he says. "All of them were old, and many of them were smashed, and completely damaged, and air conditioning, you can't find."

During the past several years, some of the orchestra's musicians fled the country. Others were forced to take on additional jobs to pay their expenses, and were unable to devote the necessary time to practice their instruments. Mr. Basim says the conditions for the musicians were highly challenging.

"In the last period, everything was busy. Everyone was busy, you just work, work, work, and it's a difficult life. So, they don't have time to play," he says. "Also, writing music. You didn't have time to write music, and you know, it was difficult."

The visit of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra was funded by the Kennedy Center and the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. For Mr. Basim, it marks the first time he has been out of Iraq. He says he is enjoying seeing the United States.

"I think it's a beautiful country, and everything is organized, and that's the important thing, I mean, you can't find this in Iraq now, and lovely and kindly peoples, all the peoples here are kindly and lovely, and they are so excited to see us, and especially the performance, it was good," he says.

In addition to the dignitaries, hundreds of Iraqi Americans attended the performance. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser says one foundation will donate new instruments to the Iraqi orchestra and another will provide the musicians with musical scores to replenish their music library.