WASHINGTON — With President Bush and other luminaries looking on, the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performed at the Kennedy Center yesterday in a concert billed as “the music of hope and the sweet, sweet sound of freedom.”
In a free concert joined by members of the Kennedy Center’s own National Symphony Orchestra, along with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Iraqi Symphony performed works ranging from Beethoven to traditional Iraqi composers.
But far more significant than the concert was how it came to happen — a personal invitation by Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser underwritten by the State Dept.’s new CultureConnect Program, an effort aimed at cultural exchanges with developing countries.
The visit by some 60 members of the Iraqi Symphony is the first such event under the program, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the packed audience at the center’s Concert Hall. “We are witnessing the historical re-entry of Iraqi culture onto the world stage,” said Powell, who praised the deep commitment demonstrated by the visiting musicians.
Kaiser also praised the artists, who he said are “little known outside their borders, whose incomes have been eliminated but whose voices need to be heard if the country is to heal.”
Kaiser noted that whenever a country experiences freedom, the system that supported artists disintegrates and is only reconfigured after other priorities are addressed. He urged that a plan be created so Iraqi arts can accept and attract private contributions.
Indeed, the process is already under way. The Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation has completed a drive to ensure that every member of the Iraqi Symphony receives a new professional-quality instrument.
Kaiser extended the invitation during a three-day State Dept. visit to Baghdad Sept. 23-26 with Patricia Harrison, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs. Kaiser was recently named U.S. Cultural Ambassador as part of the CultureConnect arts exchange program.
Kaiser and Harrison met with numerous artists and arts leaders in Baghdad to learn more about Iraqi culture and to help rebuild their arts institutions. Kaiser said he was impressed with the scope and professionalism of theater in the war-torn country, and said he looked forward to assisting its rebuilding via Kennedy Center efforts such as its Capacity Building Campaign.
“I believe that everyone deserves great art,” said Kaiser. “Iraq has a tremendous need to heal, obviously, and the arts can contribute to that because they build communication among people.”
The Kennedy Center’s Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations includes 29 African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American arts groups from around the U.S.