The healing arts: Northampton guitar concert aims to help children in Iraq

Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2014

War is the ugliest manifestation of the human experience. You might say it’s the greatest example of humanity’s inhumanity.

Art is the flip side — it’s an activity designed to create and appreciate beauty, to celebrate the best aspects of the human experience and our world.

The organizers of a unusual weekend concert in Northampton hope that art, in the form of classical guitar music, can serve as a reminder to people suffering in one war-torn region of the world that life still has something positive to offer — and that they haven’t been forgotten.

Peter Blanchette, composer and creator of the 11-string archguitar, will perform selected works by Johann Sebastian Bach on Sept. 28 at the Arts Trust Building in Northampton. And ideally, the 2 p.m. show — or at least some part of it — will also be heard via Skype by doctors in Baghdad, Iraq, who have been working for years to try and heal the wounds of war among the city’s children.

The “Bach to Baghdad” concert is the brainchild of Claudia Lefko, a longtime peace activist who has made numerous visits to Iraq, and Blanchette, her friend and neighbor in Northampton. Lefko conceived the idea as an outgrowth of work she’s done through her nonprofit group, the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange (ICAE), which since 2000 has sponsored art-sharing projects among children and adults in the United States, Iraq and Jordan as a means of breaking down national and cultural barriers.

In the last two years, Lefko has also expanded ICAE’s work to include a project called “Baghdad Resolve,” which aims to enlist doctors and health organizations in working with Iraqi doctors and nurses who treat pediatric cancer patients in Iraq.

In Baghdad, Lefko said, “People’s hopes are failing. There have been so many years of war, of violence, of shortages of food and medicine ... and now you have this terrible situation with ISIS (the Islamic jihadist state). When you’re just trying to survive, it’s easy to forget about things like art that normally help give life meaning.”

Lefko, a retired early-childhood educator, communicated earlier this spring with one of her longtime contacts in Iraq, Dr. Salma Al-Hadad, who directs a pediatric oncology unit at a Baghdad hospital. The two were recalling a visit Lefko made in spring 2013 to that dusty hospital, where Al-Hadad was leading a day of training and lectures for visiting doctors from the U.S. and Italy.

As the group crowded into a stuffy office, Lefko recalls, Al-Hadad switched on her cellphone to offer everyone an antidote to the stress and turmoil: a recording from opera maestro Luciano Pavarotti.

“It was a powerful moment,” she said. It reminded her of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 along the trenches in France in World War I, when German and English soldiers spontaneously met in No Man’s Land to exchange greetings, food and photographs. It also recalled the time Vedran Smailović, the “cellist of Sarajevo,” performed amidst the rubble of the city during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

“It seemed like a wonderful interlude of humanity in the middle of all this horror,” Lefko said — a stark contrast to the frustration and despair she was feeling this spring at the continued bloodshed in Iraq, which has made it impossible for her to return to the country since 2013, after making numerous visits over the years.

Surviving the unimaginable

Enter Peter Blanchette, who lives across the street from Lefko near the city’s Meadows section. The two regularly see one another, and Blanchette recalls talking with Lefko one day in the spring when he saw her gardening.

“When I asked her how things were going, she was telling me about the latest problems and how she wanted to do something [to help] but didn’t know what,” Blanchette said. That was the starting point in a conversation that eventually led to the idea of Blanchette performing a concert that he and Lefko would try to share with some of her Iraq contacts.

“I’m not that well versed in what’s happening there, but I wanted to do something, and I’m so impressed with what Claudia has done over the years,” he said. “She’s the real deal. She puts a face on people [in Iraq] and reminds us they have hopes and dreams, families, jobs. ... So much of what you hear from Iraq is impersonal, 30 people killed in a bombing, that sort of thing. Claudia reminds us these are people with real lives, trying to survive things we can’t imagine.”

Blanchette has gained national and international recognition for his composing and playing on his singular invention, an 11-string guitar. The archguitar looks and plays primarily like a guitar, but it also replicates the range and tonal qualities of a lute, providing a richer bass sound and more vibrancy than a conventional guitar.

He’s made particular use of his archguitar for arranging and playing Renaissance- and Baroque-era music, as well as original compositions inspired by those kind of songs. Blanchette, who’s been a regular performer for years on programs like “A Prairie Home Companion,” has also composed music for TV programs and written new scores for silent movies by Buster Keaton.

Blanchette’s Sept. 28 concert, Lefko stresses, is something of a “conceptual art project.” Given the inconsistency of Internet connections in Iraq, she doesn’t know if, when Blanchette plays, her Iraq contacts will be able to hear the music via Skype. It will be 9 p.m. in Baghdad when Blanchette plays, meaning doctors Al-Hadad and Al-Jadiry will be in their homes, rather than in the hospital.

But if the cyberspace connections work, both those doctors will introduce themselves to the audience before the show and speak a bit about their situation. Also, a documentary filmmaker and director, Rose Rosenblatt of New York, will be on hand to make a short film of the concert, including interviewing audience members. Lefko says her intent is to use that film as a way to “promote the idea of ‘Bach to Baghdad’ as an idea to be in solidarity with people in Iraq.”

Blanchette, who also directs the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra and has performed in Europe, says he’s never played in the Middle East but is a big fan of Middle Eastern music.

“I’m happy to be part of this. And if there’s some way of making this concert available [to people in Iraq] through the Internet or downloading, whatever it may be, we’d like to make that happen.”

Tickets cost $15, payable at the door by cash or check, or online at Profits from the concert will go to support the work of “Baghdad Resolve.”


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