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Iraqi Cellist Travels to NYC for 9-11 Concert
Cellist/Director of Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra plays to sold-out crowd
By DANIEL W. SMITH 09/12/2008 5:25 PM ET
Photo: Michael T. Luongo

Karim Wasfi, the principal cellist, director, and driving force of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra was in New York City last night, to be part of the Seventh Annual Concert for Peace, held every September 11th. In front of a packed house at Manhattan’s Merkin Concert Hall, he performed “Janan: A Requiem for Solo Cello and String Orchestra”, written by the conductor of the INSO, Amin Ezzat. Janan was the name of Ezzat’s wife, who died shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

I have met Karim Wasfi several times in Baghdad, and am always impressed by him. Aside from his musical prowess and commanding stage presence, he is really the driving force behind the INSO, and operates under circumstances which are, to understate, daunting. Despite bombings, assassination attempts, and the crumbling of his country around him, he has remarkably and charismatically kept the INSO going throughout the entire war. He told me in Baghdad once, “We have no desire to react to the violence by not functioning.” I was still just as impressed by him last night.

As he bounded on stage, the sold-out audience’s applause thundered. They had just heard a series of original pieces by Kinan Azmeh, a crowd-pleasing Syrian clarinetist, accompanied by a small group of expert musicians. When Wasfi took his seat, the room went silent. Then, the tortured strains of “Janan” cut through the silence, with Wasfi backed-up by members of the string ensemble “The Knights”. Their performance of “Janan” was haunting, especially given the time and place.

The concerts are put on by the not-for-profit group Musicians for Harmony, which was founded by New York violinist Allegra Klein, soon after the events of September 11th, 2001. Her goal was to foster dialogue and cross-cultural understanding through music. Many renowned artists have donated their time and talents, to help her raise money for humanitarian causes.

Not one to sit on the sidelines, Klein traveled to Baghdad in 2003, armed with replacement strings for the INSO's instruments, and plenty of donated sheet music (most of the INSO’s sheet music was destroyed in the looting which followed the U.S. invasion). She also performed with them, the first time since the invasion that an American artist traveled to the country to collaborate with Iraqi artists.

In 2007, she returned through a State Department-funded program to teach musicians and artists gathered in Erbil from all over Iraq. She has since started her group’s mentorship program, where talented music students in Iraq have the chance to take continued lessons from established musicians in America (and elsewhere for that matter) via the internet.

It was by all accounts a successful concert, and is an endeavor that lines up just perfectly with Karim Wasfi’s efforts "to keep intact what is best in us.”

Listen to the concert here.


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