WASHINGTON – The Iraqi National Symphony (search) performed for President Bush and a large audience Tuesday night, presenting another side of the nation whose image is shaped by daily reports of combat and death.
"I think the importance of our presence here is for the Americans to learn about the capabilities and all the resources that are present in Iraq," said Saad al-Dujaily, who plays flute for the orchestra.
The 63-member Iraqi group was joined by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra (search) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Washington Symphony, shared the stage with Iraqi conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat in leading the combined orchestra through six pieces, one composed by Ezzat.
Cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma (search) also performed with the orchestras.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called the performance the "historic re-entry of the Iraqi culture on the world stage." He hosted the performance, which was sponsored by State Department.
The Kennedy Center's president, Michael Kaiser, said he wanted the performance to highlight the financial needs of Iraqi artists, whose already meager support has been diminished by the turmoil that surrounded the downfall of Saddam Hussein's government.
"Here were artists little known outside their borders whose incomes had been eliminated but whose voices needed to be heard," Kaiser said.
Top members of the Bush administration and Rend Rahim, Iraq's representative in Washington, joined Bush in the presidential box.
The Iraqi orchestra played at Washington's premier performance center after years of making do during war, Saddam's totalitarian rule and international sanctions directed at him. The orchestra's concert halls have been bombed, burned and looted.
Many of its musicians had fled Saddam's Iraq to perform in Australia, Germany and New Zealand. Still, through its 44-year history, the orchestra maintained a core of 40 musicians. Ezzat joined in 1989, leaving it in 2002 when he fled to Sweden.
The orchestra's members include players of both Islam's main sects, Shiite and Sunni, and of Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, Iraqi Christian and Turkman descent.
For the Bush administration, the concert offered an opportunity to bring home an example of an improvement in Iraq during the American occupation.
But al-Dujaily, the flutist, said the Iraqis want to show Americans that Iraqis also can be classical musicians. Al-Dujaily is a biologist and had a fellowship three years ago at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. "The people were very surprised that someone from Iraq was able to play flute," he said.
The Iraqi orchestra now practices at the Baghdad Convention Center in a heavily protected zone guarded by U.S. troops.