By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD, Oct 29 (Reuters) - When the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra (INSO) holds a concert in Baghdad, organisers don’t like to advertise: in fact they would prefer as few people as possible know about it.
Welcome to the bravest orchestra in the world.
The INSO, established in 1959, has survived decades of war, international sanctions, government neglect and vicious sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and forced millions to flee for their lives.
It saw its music library and instrument store looted after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, and one of its main concert venues was destroyed by U.S. missiles.
Some members have been kidnapped or killed in sectarian violence, others have received death threats and 29 have joined the exodus of more than 2 million people who have fled Iraq.
But amid the discord, the orchestra seeks harmony.
Its 60 members are an ethnic and religious cross-section of Iraqi society — Shi’ite, Sunni Muslim and Christian, and Arab, Kurd and Turkman. They see themselves as a family of survivors.
So it was with pride that the orchestra launched into Johann Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’ to kick off the first concert of their new season, held on a Thursday afternoon at a social club in the western Baghdad district of Mansour, for an audience of invited guests.
"The symphony orchestra is ours. A thousand state changes, but we are still going," said Mohammed Amin Izzat, the orchestra’s conductor since 1989.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, the INSO would advertise concerts in the media, especially on television. Now this happens by word of mouth, with organisers phoning a list of supporters or putting up posters in music colleges.
"We cannot advertise now because any gathering is a target for terrorist operations," Izzat said.
Guests for the concert at the Mansour social club are told to be there at midday "for security reasons". No time is given for the event because both the musicians and the guests have to navigate police and army checkpoints and blocked roads.
By the time the concert starts two hours later the hall, which can hold about 500 people, is almost full. The audience is made up of friends and relatives of the musicians and members of the club. Most have paid 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8) for a ticket.
Dressed in black suits, and with instruments in hand, the musicians climb the stage to perform works by Bach, Dvorak, Vivaldi, and an Iraqi folkloric piece.
The orchestra’s youngest member is 14-year-old oboe-player Duaa al-Azzawi, daughter of the orchestra’s librarian Majid al-Azzawi: "I want to be famous. Now I practice every day for an hour," she said at a rehearsal a few days before the concert.
The INSO has 10 concerts scheduled for the 2007/8 season, including a trip to the United States, where it played at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2003 to an audience that included U.S. President George W. Bush.
Izzat is hoping for better luck than in the 2006/7 season, when surprise curfews forced the cancellation of several concerts. Despite improved security, checkpoints and roadside bombs still stop musicians from getting to rehearsals.
One violinist was killed in a roadside bombing three months ago while Duaa’s father, trumpeter and librarian al-Azzawi, was briefly kidnapped in March by gunmen and bundled into the boot of a car.
"This incident affected me for one day, then the next day I took my children to school and I went to the orchestra," he said. "We love our job, we have to keep going."
Pianist Natasha al-Radhi, 67, is a Czech who moved to Iraq 40 years ago and is married to an Iraqi man: "I cannot leave Iraq, I have a family here. I am a grandmother now. There, I have no one," she said.
The orchestra’s heyday was in the mid-1980s, when it hosted foreign musicians and conductors from the former Soviet Union, Germany, France and Hungary.
This "golden age", as the musicians refer to it, came to an abrupt end with the Gulf War in 1991, which ushered in a decade of punishing sanctions that impoverished ordinary Iraqis.
Government funding dried up, the musicians’ salaries, paid by the state, were just 30 Iraqi dinars ($22) a month, and they were unable to replace old or broken instruments.
Since the U.S. invasion in 2003 their salaries have increased to $570 a month, but they still complain of government neglect and say they depend almost entirely on foreign aid.
They have received donations of musical equipment from Japan’s Yamaha Corp and a Swiss non-governmental organisation. The orchestra also has sponsorship from a mobile phone company.
"We represent the cultural face of Iraq. It is not acceptable that the world cares and gives, while the country neglects us completely," Izzat said.
If the INSO manages to complete its 2007/8 programme as scheduled, that would be one indicator that U.S. and Iraqi security forces are having some success in quelling violence.
But perhaps a better one will be the day the musicians can advertise their concerts again without fear.