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Letter from Iraq: When a violinist becomes mayor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2012 - Over the summer, most people go to the beach or a lovely mountain resort, maybe a little island somewhere; I choose to go to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq for our annual Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy with the Association of American Voices. This summer was my 7th time in Iraq teaching violin and conducting string orchestras. We started the arts academy in Erbil in 2007 with support from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

With the continued support of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government, this summer we hosted more than 300 music and dance students from all over Iraq for 12 days of intensive classes, rehearsals, and two gala concerts at the University of Duhok in the northern city of Duhok near the Iraqi-Turkish border.

I went a week early to conduct auditions in cities such as Koya, Suleimaniya, Rania and Rawanduz. Rawanduz is a beautiful little mountain town on the border of the Soran and Badinan regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. I had heard about Rawanduz for many years but had not had a chance to visit until now. Two hours north of the Kurdistan region’s capital of Erbil, Rawanduz is known as a tourist attraction with a lovely waterfall, steep mountains and better weather than most of the rest of Iraq in July.

The mayor district governor of Rawanduz is Serwan Sereni whose family has lived in that region for many decades. He is a personal friend of the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and a true gentleman as you would expect from a cultural diplomat.

What I did not expect is his knowledge of classical western European music and his belief that young people in Iraq deserve the opportunity to study music. Serwan is an accomplished violinist who studied at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota and has performed with the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra in Minneapolis.

Mayor Sereni has figured out how to develop music and arts as a means to improve the economy in Rawanduz. Two years ago, he built the Rawanduz Institute of Fine Arts.

Since then, his administration has built a new visitor center, an amusement park, new rental properties for tourists and new roads in and out of the district. A new hotel is in the works, as well as a large dam between nearby two mountains that will result in a lake for boating and swimming.

Meanwhile, this fall Mayor Sereni expects the new Orchestra Hall and Theater to be finished. Sereni hopes Rawanduz will become home to summer music and arts festivals and that the tourist industry will continue to grow as it has done for the past five years.

Ten Rawanduz Arts Institute music students came to the YES Academy program in Duhok and were charming additions to the string ensembles. I remain in touch with them via Facebook and Skype and look forward to our return next year.

Meanwhile, Mayor Sereni also came for the final concert at my invitation to perform with me the “Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor” by J.S. Bach, one of his favorite pieces to play.

The Rawanduz students were clearly fond of him. It is a powerful statement for young people to see their city’s mayor practicing what he preaches, taking the time to talk with all of them individually, and getting to hear him play in a concert.

Sereni is an impressive character with a soft voice and quick smile. His refined personality was reflected in his sensitive violin playing, never overbearing but with a quiet strength that has served him well and the people of Rawanduz. Serwan Sereni continues to represent the best of the Kurdish hopes for their future in the Middle East, and stands as a shining example for civic leaders across the United States.