Philip Clark

Playing for high stakes

Remaining ferociously upbeat in the heat, the conductor Paul MacAlinden teaches the group — riven by factionalism and with no classical grounding — to play Beethoven, Haydn and Mendelssohn

Now that even candidates for President of the United States can rise up from the undead dregs of reality television, it comes as no surprise to read that the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq owes its origins to a conclave of television execs. In 2008, Channel 4 and the independent production company Raw TV took upon themselves to campaign for a youth orchestra in Iraq, focusing their programme around the story of Zuhal Sultan, a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist. Later that same year, the Scottish conductor Paul MacAlindin was savouring a fish-and-chip supper in his favourite Edinburgh pub when his eye caught a headline in the Glasgow Herald about the same project — ‘Search for UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq’ — and he thought: ‘I know how to do this.’

What follows, rolling off the pages with the Noakesian enthusiasm of a
Blue Peter presenter, is one of the most unlikely, and genuinely heroic, stories you’re ever likely to read, involving Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 and instruments that fail to stay in tune as temperatures push the mercury. Orchestras are loose coalitions of 100-odd people and are, by nature, prone to rancorous internal politicking. But add to the equation that Iraq had little existing classical music infrastructure, and that an Iraqi youth orchestra would necessarily need to draw on both the Arab and Kurdish population and, as MacAlindin explains, the whole scheme bordered on the implausible.

Revealing intricacies of everyday detail that might make even Karl Ove Knausgaard blush, MacAlindin reproduces emails and verbatim conversations with a revolving cast of British and Iraqi officials from whom he needs guidance — and hard cash, lots of it. A gentle line in self-deprecating humour emerges as our resourceful maestro infiltrates various business delegations and conferences, cheerfully waving copies of his promotional DVD in the general direction of corporate suits.

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