Beethoven And Foreign Policy

The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra performs for President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in a joint concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2003.
In his commentary, CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson takes a look at a night of diplomatic music - and the drama behind the scenes, especially for some of the musicians who appeared onstage at the Kennedy Center in a historic concert.

Most of the week's headlines about Iraq have centered on the handling - or mishandling - of the Bush administration's latest controversial decision in its reconstruction efforts, that is the exclusion of French, German, Russian and Canadian firms from becoming prime contractors for projects funded by $18 billion dollars of U.S. aid. Interesting but not the subject of this column.

This week's focus on Iraq comes neither from the Pentagon, the Coalition Provisional Authority nor the Iraqi Governing Council. The spotlight this week, literally and figuratively, was at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington for it was on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall that politics blended with music and Iraqi culture.

Under the auspices of the State department's Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, some 60 members of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra came to the U.S. to play a joint concert with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra. Beethoven, Bizet, and Faure were played along with works by modern Iraqi composers and traditional Iraqi music. The world-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, lent his high profile and musical talent to the combined symphonies.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking to an audience that included President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, called the INSO "a symbol of normal life returning to the people of Iraq and of their reconnection to the world of music."

"Tonight, we also will witness the historic reentry of Iraqi culture onto the world stage," Powell said. Officials from the Pentagon and the State department, the National Security Council and the diplomatic corps applauded, as did members of the public lucky enough to receive tickets. So much for the political niceties of the evening.

The Iraqi musicians are as diverse as their country, and count among their numbers Shi'a, Sunni, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrian Christians and Turkomen. While the INSO has been playing for over four decades, the Washington performance was its first in the U.S.

The orchestra may indeed be "a symbol of normal life returning to the people of Iraq," as Powell claimed, but picking up their instruments once again still carries a risk in Iraq. Those who oppose the American presence also oppose those who work with, or, in this case, play music with, Americans. Hisham Sharaf, the INSO's Director, was shot at recently while driving through Baghdad. Fortunately, he escaped unhurt.

Each of the musicians has his or her own story to tell. One, skilled at rebuilding old instruments, took a violin in need of much repair from Norway, rebuilt it and listened with obvious satisfaction when the instrument was played this week at the Kennedy Center.

When the INSO found itself without sheet music, one of its members with an exceptional ear listened to the music the orchestra wanted to play and then was able to write the notes for each instrument.

Many fellow musicians and music lovers in America and elsewhere have pitched in to help provide new instruments, strings, reeds and sheet music for the INSO to be able to play.

Musically, no one is pretending the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra is a world-class outfit. But that misses the point. Their members clearly are as devoted to their art and to the long cultural history of music in their country as are musicians anywhere.

The efforts made by the members of the INSO to get them to the Kennedy Center's stage are deserving of support and the rousing welcome expressed by the audience in Washington seemed to show appreciation for those efforts.

Restoring electricity and clean water and getting the schools and hospitals up and running again are clearly important tasks for the people of Baghdad and the American officials now heading the reconstruction efforts.

But it's also nice to know that at least some efforts are being devoted to restoring Iraq's cultural life. Now, if the Bush administration could devise a plan to bridge the gap between itself and the French, Germans, Russians and Canadians, then we could really hear the sounds of a world-class political orchestra and the nationality of its conductor wouldn't be such a problem.

By Charles Wolfson