I had to think about saying yes to this when Marc Thayer first called. You hear about danger in Iraq, and I know I made my family nervous. However, I would do it again, without hesitation.
Some of these students first began their instruments alone, with only YouTube as a guide and no feedback. Can you imagine what self-motivation that would require? How do you know what excellence is? How can you go beyond a certain level? (Some students, like those in the West, justify excesses in interpretation with “[Famous Soloist] plays that way.” This is an extension of the same problem. I tried to impress on them that in Classical music, the composer is the first authority, and deviations and changes must only come from your study of the piece. By all means, steal ideas from other performers, but only if you understand why they’re done and how they affect the performance.
The conducting class was also important and I hope it makes a difference. For some class meetings there were twenty students, for others only a handful. I think they now have a better idea the influence a conductor can have on performance and will bring this to their future work. I also suspect that the Kurdish translation of Italian terms will do some circulation in that part of the world for at least a few years! (Arun, one of the concertmasters, did most of the work there!)
However, my personal trip, and the program as a whole, is not simply about musical performance. It’s about transformational change. Lives are changing in deep ways, and access to the world is expanding. I’m told Iraqis must be have a specific purpose, and be granted a visa from their government, in order to leave the country – none of the meandering travel we can enjoy in the West! Now some of these young musicians will travel to France with the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra tour to France next month, and others are pursuing studies in the US because of these connections.
Whether they travel abroad or not, this generation of students are already teaching new generations of young students, and raising standards, expectations and hopes across many of the cities and towns in Kurdistan. It was an honor to be a part of it.
I’d like to thank a few people. I appreciate the gentle prodding of Hunter’s President, Jennifer Raab, and our Communications director, Susan Konig, to get me to blog about this. The daily reflection has been helpful, and I thank you, dear reader, for reading it, and hope that the mistakes and omissions were not too egregious! I’m thankful for John Ferguson, for running this whole thing, and Marc Thayer for inviting me. Also, my faculty colleagues are all brilliant and I was honored to be one of them.
The staff of the YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy went above and beyond what staff are expected to do, and reacted to changing circumstances daily with impressively measured calm.
My former music department chair, Ruth DeFord, donated some of her large collection of violin and viola music: this will make a big difference. While there’s IMSLP, of course, teachers and students are sometimes at a loss in picking repertoire and studies to play – these editions will make a difference. Brielle, Hunter’s acting Music Department Secretary also helped when I was making the parts for the orchestra, which I have left in Iraq by future orchestras.
Two composers I have worked with in the past, Jennifer Bellor and Piotr Szewczyk, kindly agreed to allow me to perform their works in Iraq. I actually brought music for twelve or so pieces, and I selected from this repertoire once rehearsals began. If I return I hope to play Jennifer’s beautiful “Echo’s Lament,” some day, and maybe the remaining movements of Piotr’s piece.
Without the unhesitating support of my wife, Karen Birch Blundell, I could not have gone. She agreed to be alone with our toddler daughter, Elizabeth, for the two weeks I’ve been gone, traveling together from NYC to her family in Connecticut, then down to North Carolina and beginning the festival where she teaches. I simply couldn’t have gone had she not taken this on.
I'm writing this from the balcony of a cafe in Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus...
The time of Sunday's KurdSat (TV) appearance got pushed later, and I wondered if it would happen, but sure enough, Cherise, Karwan, our translator and I took a cab out of Suli, into the hills, into an area with far more serious police officers, past the Presidential Palace. (Under the arrangements of post-Saddam Iraq, the largely ceremonial presidential post tends to go to a member of the Kurdish minority.)
Then our taxi was stopped at the gate and we walked to the studio building.
After a meeting with the producer, who knew very little about the program but drafted some good questions after a while... it was VERY useful to be able to play the beginning of the SBS Kurdish radio broadcast on my phone!
The main presenter came in (we’d just seen her on the TV in the office), and introduced herself. She was remarkably calm to my mind. Although, I don’t do live TV in Kurdistan every day. She came in, saw we hadn’t had makeup done yet, but were due on TV in 5 minutes, so walked us over to the makeup room.
In the interview we talked about the program, the students, our impressions of Suli, and performed a little. Cherise performed two amazing short poems… the first slow, the second in rap format. I played some Bach, the Andante from the A minor Solo Sonata.
Since our taxi had been sent away at the gate, we went in a company car, first towards the Institute (they didn’t have the right information…), then on to the theater. While we were stuck in traffic, Cherise and I worked on the idea of her performing a poem while I repeated the Bach, in that evening’s performance.
Arriving at the theater, there were some mishaps with dress rehearsal, mostly regarding lateness; this had been a common thread in the program from the start. The Kurdish people I met were all very welcoming, family and friend-centered, in a way which can lead to lateness, since to hurry away, even with a pressing concern, could be considered impolite. It is natural that the precision demanded by professional performance should sometimes cause friction. In the end, common effort trumped problems, and the show went on.
Over the few hours it took for things to be smoothed over I got to spend some more time with the American University students who were helping with translation. One of them, a journalism major, was 23 and had been born while their family was in exile in Iran during the Saddam regime. The other was 19 and still taking their common first-year classes while working out her area of study.
I didn’t have time to go back to the hotel, so performed in casual clothes. I only heard Cherise’s poem a little, while playing the violin. To me, it fitted well with the introspective nature of the Bach, and its form worked with the way I played the Andante – taking the first repeat but not the second. I hope we get the chance to do it again!
One of the performers asked me about playing the violin. Violin teachers in Suli had told him that being left-handed, he couldn’t play violin. I told him it was untrue, and to give him my card. If I can do anything from New York, I will.
I’m writing these last words on the plane going back to New York from Istanbul. The flight was delayed a day (caused by pilot illness), leaving Cricket and me in Istanbul for 24 hours. I took the opportunity to visit the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and take the bridge across the Bosporus, back into Asia.
Now we’re over Iceland (I asked a flight attendant, who called the flight deck), and this narrative comes to a close. I may keep editing it a bit, and adding photos, but it's time to prepare for the Fall which is shaping up to be fun and BUSY!
A fun trip to the bazaar this morning with Bashtar (a student/administrator) and Bruce. I'll post pictures when I've got more reliable internet access, but highlights included Bruce's purchase of Kurdish pants at the tailor and a visit to Suli's first tea-house (filled with men [only - that's common here] talking, smoking, playing dominos/backgammon and drinking tea). I also got some pretty souvenirs for home.
The afternoon saw a productive Brahms quartet rehearsal followed by student compositions. Then the concert was at 6. Student compositions, Brahms quartet, wind ensemble, and the rock groups.
SBS included my report in their Friday program (28 June). It's here:
The announcer wrote that my segment is at 52:40. (It's also available by podcast!)
The morning dress rehearsal in the hall went well, and my friends Bruce and Marc graciously agreed to help the cellos and violins, respectively. I played in the Intermediate orchestra (which they were conducting alongside Greg), too.
Then, a return to the Institute for lunch and rehearsals of the three student compositions we’ll play in Saturday’s concert. There are some very cool ideas in these pieces. One of them has a solo I really need to practice!
The concert was very successful, and the students in the orchestra played the best we’ve played anything. Sure, for some of the pieces, we played them a little faster than we’d rehearsed them (!), but the orchestra was up to the challenge. I was very proud of them, and I told that to the audin
Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (I)
Vivaldi, Guitar Concerto in D
Bach, Air from Suite No. 3 D
Lady Gaga Fugue
Szewczyk, The Rebel from A Journey Within
It was very fun, and there were so many students wanting to take pictures afterwards, even quite a few who I’d not worked with: all for Facebook… I wonder what their servers will think!
A good, big dinner at “Nandoos” (sic) near the hotel.
Busy day tomorrow!
Rehearsal this morning consisted of some detailed work, then we practiced performing, including stagecraft and moving between pieces… the students are the more experienced of the program, but it’s good to be on the same page.
The final conducting class was very small but fun – we worked on a few exercises for left-hand cueing, plus the note-cards of doom. (That is, the conductor has a rhythm in front of them, which they must transmit, without words, to the rest of the class. Prof. Varon, at Eastman, taught this to me, and it’s essential practice.)
I went with the stage crew/local students to the hall, along with chairs, music stands and boxes of bottled water. Here are pictures of the hall:
In the evening, Cherise (Mahogany Jones) was the MC for an open mic at a café in town, about 1.5k away from the hotel. Susan (the guitar teacher/soloist) and I walked over there (a long walk).
I left for a few minutes for sustenance. I stepped into a nice little fast-food pizza nook in Kurdistan, run by an Indian family (judging by the Bollywood movie playing behind the counter). I struck up conversation with a fellow waiting with his young son. He’d worked for Ericsson in Sweden for 20 years, and returned to Kurdistan with the company to help build the country’s burgeoning computer networks. He offered to pay for my pizza, but I demurred.
The open mic was great. There was some playing, some beatboxing and rapping (yes, in Kurdish!), and Susan played guitar, with Cherise reciting a poem over her second piece. It was a beautiful evening, marred only by a few minutes of confrontation from the manager. (“You promised me an open mic, but why was there things that were not music? This is terrible!” Despite lots of extra business for the café.) But that certainly didn’t subtract from the evening.
A great rehearsal this morning, with Faculty Guitarist Susan McDonald rehearsing the Vivaldi with us. After that, an early break, before Szewczyk. It worked out: during the break, there'd been a press conference, and we were into the swing of Piotr's piece by the time the cameras came to rehearsal. Possibly about six of them. Wow.
Several of us went over to check out the American University at the invitation of their incoming Chair. They're a quite new department, with only about 30 students and another 30 entering in the Fall (September). They're adding faculty lines, and some exciting things are happening there. They're housed in the same building as a more established Art department, so there's lots of art (sculptures and paintings) all over the place.
After conducting class, I taught a lesson with one of the local students who's been studying in Switzerland. Some solid work done on a Beethoven Romance, which I hadn't played so I probably got into a rather severe amount of detail... Then I played the Louange movement from Quartet for the End of Time, with John, for the composition class.
Cherise/Mahogany, Marc, Bruce, and several of the students went to the house of one of the former students' family, in the evening. It was quite a drive, winding through several suburbs, to a new one built in the last couple of years.
The family was incredibly welcoming. Mother, father, and four children: two grown sons, a daughter in high-school, and a six-year-old son. The two older sons play violin, the daughter wants to be a dentist. (The younger son seemed to enjoy having visitors very much, and happily took on chores like bringing water, served here in pre-sealed containers.)
Dinner was AMAZING: I think it was called dolma, and it had been cooking all day. It was a melange of rice wrapped in grape leaves, along with eggplant, lamb, tomatoes, and even some stuffed squash flowers. I also enjoyed a yogurt/buttermilk-type drink, which settled my stomach after the overnight discomfort...
After dinner, first dessert of tea and (sweet) biscuits, with Iraq's "The Voice" on TV in the background. Then a second dessert (I like this country!) of fresh fruit, while we sat around chatting, then end of "The Young Victoria." A very enjoyable evening.
Sitting with Bruce, I mentioned just how wild it was that in this family of six, one of the members was absent... because he's in the same place as Karen and Elizabeth. As I said yesterday, a VERY small world.
Hmm, don't know why this didn't post yesterday. It's (very) late on Wednesday night, so I'm just going to repost. Today was good, another wonderful meal at the house of a student, went to a concert of Kurdish songs - very beautiful.
More good progress in the pieces with the orchestra. There are also even more new members from today, and I think there will be no new members from now on. I may still need to remind folks "the Bach is in 8," but it won't be news to them.
At lunch (trying the Italian restaurant in the mall - pretty good, though not dirt-cheap like everywhere else), the incoming Chair of the Music Department of the American University here came over to talk: we were going to meet tomorrow but it worked out to meet today instead. It sounds like they've got great facilities (the best in the Middle East, it was said), and they've opened up some new faculty positions. Really fascinating scenario, and a few of us are planning to visit the University tomorrow. (Don't worry, I'm not jumping ship!)
Some Brahms quartet rehearsal, then conducting class. Having taught 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 on successive days, I think we'll now expand on the rhythmic dictation exercises, and work on studying some terms. Arum, a very capable violinist and student/administrator, is helping with Kurdish translations for common tempo markings, which we'll distribute to the conducting students. Seeing definitions in Kurdish (which uses Arabic script) is WILD! I will certainly keep a copy.
Very detailed, and intriguing, questions... I talked about how a conductor should have a plan (including physically) in order to lead effectively. "But Mr. Reuben, what if the conductor is moved by the music?" "Changing the plan as you go can be wonderful, as well as necessary to assist musicians, or even correct mistakes. But you need the plan to have something to change from, and return to." Very good question, with the answer translated back into Kurdish (Sorani and Kurmanji dialects) and Arabic.
I ended class five minutes early, so I could attend the Sulymaniyah Symphony rehearsal. They rehearsed Mozart Symphony No. 25 and the Suite from Peer Gynt by Grieg. It's clear that they are a talented and dedicated group, with a lot of musicality and potential. Some of the teachers from the Fin (and several of the students at the YES Academy) are playing in the orchestra. Their conductor, too, was very friendly. When not conducting, he's teaching violin, viola, cello, piano, oud, and mentioned several other instruments. Whew!
Today was the birthday of the school director, John Ferguson, so we celebrated on top of the mountain, with cake, chicken sandwiches, and light libations. Given the timing of when these academies are normally held, he's had a lot of birthdays in exotic locations!
I got to talk with Karen twice today, making up for yesterday when she had auditions and meetings all day. It's hard to consider how tough things were before cheap and convenient phone-calls!
Bed before midnight! As long as I don't read too much of my current book (Frederic Morton: Thunder at Twilight, Vienna 1913/1914), I may yet get enough sleep!
A good rehearsal this morning - we began work on the Lady Gaga fugue! It's an innocuous educational piece written for strings, that uses the chorus from her song "Bad Romance" as the fugue subject, or main melody. Cool though, and my first introduction to Lady Gaga! Some more work on Szewczyk, Mozart and Bach... the Bach Air, with its slowly moving melodic lines, is very difficult - when one of the students told me "Kurdish students find slow music really difficult to play without mistakes," I told him the truth - ALL students find slow music difficult. But it's coming along! I know that this music is quite demanding, and that I can be, too. But I believe the group is aware of the musical rewards we're already achieving with these pieces. (I'm told that "Air" means something rude in Arabic... so I have to figure out what else to call the piece... uh oh.)
Lunch outside - it's a lot like Miami in August, but drier... One feels sorry for the fellow who brews the delicious cardamon tea. However, with generous clumps of sugar, it's hard not order another cup. They drink it without milk, so it's very hot. Instead of waiting, they pour some tea into the saucer, drinking from there until the tea-glass has cooled down! It's very sensible!
I think this might be the first year there are two violinists on faculty (the other is Marc Thayer, still a fantastic violinist, even after becoming national treasure/guru in the US world of orchestral community partnerships). SO, we're playing the first movement of the Brahms A Minor String Quartet. The last time I played it was with the same cellist, Bruce Walker, back at the Monteux School. It's GREAT to be playing with him, Marc, and Greg Hurley the violist and also a conductor.
Afternoon conducting class was good, and followed by some more chamber music. Dinner was a large gathering at the Divan restaurant near the hotel, and included some past students. One of them, from here in Suli, has a younger brother who's studying violin at the same festival where my wife teaches. (Karen is Principal English Horn at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC.) I may be able to keep up on my Kurdish, and it just proves how TINY the musical world can be!
How did it get so late?!
Today began with the hotel breakfast (carrot jam! I wasn't sure at first but it was delicious!). The last two faculty members arrived after one of those Newark-flight-cancellation-horror stories - Patrick Clark the composer and Marc Thayer, violin et cetera, from St. Louis. Rehearsal yesterday had started thirty minutes late, today only ten, which I think is a good sign! Good energy from the students, and a few new players. Good progress.
Lunch in the mall again. Part-way through, the power cut out, taking with it the hum of giant air-conditioners and the muted escalator rumble.
First conducting class in the afternoon. It grew as we went along, and I think we finished with 15 or so students. As in orchestral rehearsals, I try to talk as little as possible, yet, you've got to talk to describe conducting. The Kurdish students will translate, then another might refine the translation. With two major Kurdish dialects here, further translation can be necessary. Then there are a few Arabic-speaking students who don't speak Kurdish, so there's further translation for them. (Kurdish is spoken in the North, Arabic in the South. Of course there's historical and cultural background, and I'm not here to write about that, but I will say everyone is getting along great: one more testament to music's great power to bring people together.)
In other words, some things I say are then translated three times!
Dinner was traditional char-grilled chicken, al fresco on the main street, sitting on plastic chairs in a joint that was swamped with locals. Delicious!
In the meantime, I got a nice reply from the presenter of the Kurdish Radio broadcasts for SBS Radio in Australia, and I'm working on a little report about what's going on over here. Who knows - we may get some more audience for our concerts next week!
With the Chamber orchestra (now 13 students), we got some good, if slow, work done this morning. Concentrated rehearsing of the Bach Air, and some revisiting of Eine kleine, Piotr's piece, and the Vivaldi concerto. Even starting 25 minutes late, and with an extended break, you can get a lot done in a 9am-1pm rehearsal!
Nearly everything closes on Friday afternoons, so we went to the local mall - mostly deserted save for a neat cafe on the top floor. Finally - coffee! (Kawa, in Kurdish, which was lost on our Arabic-speaking waiter.)
Walking back to the hotel and spying what looked like a park, I was seized by a need to go walkabout.
We went up the mountain - it could easily be Los Angeles - same kind of high hills with lightly scrubby vegetation. But with families cooking food on camp-fires.
On the way, we drove past a theme park, looks amazing!
Another rambling post... Time to rest - tomorrow there's the morning rehearsal, then a 4pm Conducting class! Looking forward to meeting more students!