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When Paul MacAlindin sat down to eat his fish and chips in an Edinburgh pub in 2008 and spotted an ad for a ‘UK maestro to help create an orchestra in Iraq’, little did the musician and conductor realise what a volatile rollercoaster he was about to step on to. The request was from 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan, a pianist in Baghdad who wanted to establish a youth orchestra in a country emerging from war but where conflict was far from over.

At that time Iraq had no discernible musical community and it was dangerous to play music, or even be seen on the streets with an instrument. There were very few teachers, so many of the young musicians were self-taught on instruments that were mostly not fit for purpose. But as MacAlindin points outs, for these young people, music was ‘a force field against reality’.

Despite the numerous frustrations and obstacles on this incredible journey, MacAlindin writes frankly with a retrospective humour that takes some of the sting out of what were clearly nightmare situations. An unreliable internet, which made Skype auditions tricky, and the Herculean task of organising and fundraising for summer schools and performances in Iraq, Germany, Scotland and France were but mere bagatelles. The ‘near mutiny’ during the summer school in Erbil when several of the Arab members of the NYOI departed because of dissatisfaction with the accommodation would have defeated anyone lacking MacAlindin’s steely determination.

However, the collapse of plans to take the NYOI to the USA in 2014 finally led to the exhausted and emotionally drained conductor calling it a day. Not only because civil war and the emergence of ISIS had divided Iraq, but because ‘the NYOI as international diplomat would be music at its most threatening’.

‘Upbeat’ may be used ironically on occasions in this highly readable book, but what MacAlindin achieved on a human scale is extraordinary with the musical seeds he has sown in Iraq a long-term force for good. This is a must-read for everyone who takes the musical riches we enjoy freely in the west for granted.

SUSAN NICKALLS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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