Wednesday 17 August 2016

Paul Macalindin’s book Upbeat – The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq published by Sandstone Press leads us on an engrossing account of the founding of a youth orchestra that is often very moving but essentially uplifting

It was in 2008 that conductor, Paul Macalindin , was sitting at a window table in his favourite Edinburgh pub, The Barony, reading an old copy of the Glasgow Herald when he saw the headline ‘Search for UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq.’

Sandstone Press have recently published Macalindin’s own story from 2008 - 2014 with all the stresses and triumphs along the way.

Sandstone Press Ltd
ISBN: 9781910985090
318 pages
62 colour photographs

It was a 17 year old Iraqi pianist, Zuhal Sultan  who conceived the idea of creating a national youth orchestra of Iraq. Born in Baghdad in July 1991, Zuhal, the youngest of a scientific family of two boys and two girls, she started piano studies at the age of six with the help of a private tutor. At the age of nine she received a scholarship to study at the Music and Ballet School of Baghdad. After the 2003 Iraq War, Zuhal was left without a piano teacher but continued to teach herself, as well as the younger students in her piano class. Despite all these difficulties, she joined the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra when she was fifteen and has performed concerts both at home and abroad.

The result of reading the article in the Glasgow Herald started Paul Macalindin on an incredible journey. From his first meeting with Zuhal via Skype through the first two week summer course in Suleymaniyah, Kurdistan in 2009, subsequent summer schools, the orchestra’s appearance at the 2011 Beethovenfest in Bonn, appearing at the Edinburgh Festival/fringe in 2012 that culminated in a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with Julian Lloyd Webber, an appearance at Aix en Provence in 2013 to a failed US trip due, initially to funding and immigration difficulties and then the rise of ISIL.

It is difficult to imagine the difficulties that Paul Macalindin, his brave young players and the tutors gathered from a number of countries had to overcome. The author certainly opens our eyes. First and foremost was the problem of security, or lack of, in an unstable part of the world. Auditions to join the orchestra had to be conducted by video. There were cultural, ethnic and language difficulties as it was vital that the orchestra should be inclusive and draw its members from all parts of Iraq including Arab, Shia and Sunni and Kurds. Venues were often grand but lacking in reliable air-conditioning, something essential in the summer heat. Accommodation for the orchestra was sometimes appalling.  Instruments were often damaged or of poor quality. There was the Iraqi bureaucracy and most of all perhaps there were funding problems.

The toll on Macalindin during his time at the helm of the NYOI was considerable, emotionally, physically and financially. Nevertheless, in his book he leads us on a story that is often very moving but essentially uplifting. There is humour and above all tremendous hope and confidence in the young musicians. His is a very honest, forthright account that doesn’t pull any punches when criticising those who put up barriers and yet fulsome in praise for those many people and organisations that went beyond what might be expected to help the young players.

The young musicians themselves often experienced great danger in pursuing their musical interests. In certain parts of Iraq it was not acceptable for females to play an instrument, in other areas to be seen with a violin, oboe or bassoon would in itself cause danger. Often the young people had to carry their instrument disguised in a small suitcase or other bag.

There is no doubt that many barriers were broken down as the young members of the orchestra, often already traumatised by the experiences that they had been through, began to see each other just as musicians, learning to work together to produce great music.

Paul Macalindin’s book is an engrossing read, cover to cover, that enlarges our understanding of this troubled region. Above all it is a tribute to those brave young musicians that came together as the NYOI.

There is a forward provided by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who sadly did not live to see the book in print. 

The future of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is inevitably bound up with the future of Iraq but one can only hope that the young musicians of Iraq will go forward to achieve their musical goals. 

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