I was its conductor between 2009 and 2014by Paul MacAlindin / August 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
Between 2009 and 2014, I was the conductor and artistic director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. I first got involved when in 2008 I responded to a newspaper headline “Iraqi teen seeks maestro.” I was intrigued—but also very ignorant.
Barely at peace, with no orchestral tradition that I knew of, what could there be to work with in Iraq? What instruments did they even have? How could it be that we in the west had heard so much about war and bloodshed in Iraq, but knew so little about who its people really were?
The following year, after auditions via Skype, a promise of a bespoke piece from the late Peter Maxwell Davies, favours called in, massive logistical complexities and financial hiccups, we ran our first summer school. And so the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was born. In a few short years this group of young musicians came through the most difficult and dangerous time to produce fine music, not only in Iraq but also Britain, Germany and France. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of their favourite composers was Beethoven—a composer who knew plenty about troubled times.
The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is no more, thanks to Islamic State, but I’ve told our story in my forthcoming book, UPBEAT: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.
In Glasgow in late July, I attended a concert by the Palestine Youth Orchestra, a striking example of ingenuity, passion and freedom of expression. Their performance struck a chord with me as I remembered my time as Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. I was struck by both the similarities and the contrasts. They are a perfect example of a properly supported and sustained conflict orchestra, bringing together Palestinians with their wider diaspora, as well as support musicians from Britain’s conservatoires. Side by side, they belong to the exclusive club of young people who know how intimate, exhilarating and good for bonding a youth orchestra is.