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admired around the worl- haall but disappeared.

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Five years ago, a unique all-female orchestra was formed in Afghanistan, a nation where only a few years previously music had been outlawed and women barred from education. Now Zohra is visiting the UK for the first time.

No-one claims that in Afghanistan, the Taliban influence has been rooted out entirely. Violence continues. But two decades ago, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music would have been unthinkable.

ANIM was founded in 2008, with international support, to bring music education to young Afghans. Not long before that, the Afghan capital Kabul had finally been wrenched from the grasp of the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim Taliban.

In the Taliban years, music – once a thriving and rich part of Afghan culture, admired around the world – had all but disappeared.

Today in Kabul, ANIM teaches music skills to some 250 young people, both male and female. That figure is about to rise to 320 and there are plans to expand to cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad.

About 70% of the young people at the institute come from disadvantaged backgrounds – some used to work the streets selling vegetables, plastic bags or chewing gum to support their families. Ages range from 12 to around 20.

But five years ago, ANIM founder by Dr Ahmad Sarmast was urged to start a new project specifically to benefit girls.

One of our students told me we needed a group of four or five girls to play pop music, he says. I liked the idea but almost at once it became clear most of the girls at ANIM wanted to join. Suddenly we were talking about a full orchestra.

For Afghanistan it was a new world. It wasnt just that the Taliban had made it impossible to perform or listen to music – the whole position of women in society was one of total repression.

The orchestra was named Zohra after a Persian goddess of music. Dr Sarmast is delighted its making a name for itself elsewhere. But above all it sends a message of gender equality to other Afghans.

Zohra creates a lovely sound but also its a symbol of the freedom of Afghan women. This is the message we take around the world.

There are around 100 female students at ANIM, 23 of whom have come to Britain. Their numbers will be doubled when they play in concert with the London-based Orchestra of St Johns and others. Instruments theyve brought with them include the sarod, the rubab, tabla drums and the dutar.

The music performed is a combination of traditional Afghan music and western classical. For instance, their new arrangement of Greensleeves contains attractive new instrumentation probably not envisaged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1934.

The conductor for the Afghan pieces is Negin Khpalwak, who at 22 is one of the older musicians in the group. She joined the school not long after it opened – not initially with the idea of conducting at all. As a chorister, she performed in Dubai and has also played and conducted in the US, India, Germany and Switzerland.

Its much easier for me to conduct when we play Afghan music, she says. Were very familiar with it and we play together easily.

If we perform something like Greensleeves – which I think is very well-known in England – we have to concentrate extra hard. All of us understand Western notation but we still have to practice a lot before our concerts in Oxford and London.

The ensembles highest-profile concert in the UK will be at the British Museum on Friday. But there are other events too before they head home.

Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey of the Orchestra of St Johns has arranged for University of Oxford students to mentor young musicians in Kabul – which until now has mainly been by Skype.

What I love about Zohra is that in some ways its like a traditional Western chamber orchestra – but also we have these marvellous Afghan instruments embedded, she says.

There are many things which music can achieve – and empowerment is definitely one of them. In Afghanistan, womens education continues to be precarious.

So its important that these girls and young women know they have a global support system. There are friends and a network which will support them as they assert their human rights.

Negin Khpalwak says even in Kabul, students can still sometimes encounter people beyond the school who think its wrong that the orchestra even exists.

They will say that in Islam women arent allowed to go to school, not just for music but to study anything. But its not true – women have their own rights and those people need to be educated.

Our music isnt the only way to do that – but its one way.

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Afghanistans first female conductor

Afghanistans only music school thrives

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Perkins said. I think its absolutely one of Dvorakmasterpieces

Waukegan Symphony Orchestra salutes dance music in concert

Director Search Finalist Reed Perkins will conduct the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra for its Dance! concert March 17 at Waukegan High Schools Trapp Auditorium.

Director Search Finalist Reed Perkins will conduct the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra for its Dance! concert March 17 at Waukegan High Schools Trapp Auditorium. (Reed Perkins)

Director Finalist Reed Perkins will lead the Waukegan Sympphony Orchestras third subscription concert of the season titled Dance! at 4 p.m. March 17 at Waukegan High Schools Trapp Auditorium.

Each of the orchestras four subscription concerts this season is conducted by a different finalist auditioning for the role.

Our upcoming concert highlights the irresistible influence of dance and dancing on the world of symphonic music by featuring lively, dance-inspired music of composers from Russia, Poland, Mexico and Czechia in music written for the opera house, concert hall and radio broadcast, said Perkins, who is a freelance conductor based in southeast Wisconsin. The repertoire we are playing is such fantastic, interesting and fresh music.

The first half of the program features three shorter works, beginning with the Polonaise from Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovskys opera Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879, followed by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawskis Little Suite for symphony orchestra, completed in 1951.

The suite is in four short movements, each based on folk melodies and dance tunes from southeast Poland, Perkins said. Its a charming and lively piece filled with fresh instrumental colors and unexpected harmonies.

Next is Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayos Huapango from 1941.

(It) is perhaps the most famous and beloved piece in the Mexican symphonic repertoire, Perkins said.

The diverse program concludes with Czech composer Antonin Dvoraks Symphony No. 6 in D major, written in 1880.

Although it was Dvoraks sixth full-length symphony, it was the first that he felt was worth publishing, Perkins said. I think its absolutely one of Dvoraks masterpieces, but for some mysterious reason it is rarely played. Its filled with all of Dvoraks best and most characteristic melodies, harmonies and orchestration.

And the work fits right in with the concerts dance theme, and not just in the general sense that as in other Dvorak works many of the melodies have a dance-like character.

More particularly, the third movement, the scherzo, is not just a fast-slow-fast scherzo but a furiant, Perkins explained. The furiant is a fiery traditional Czech dance, and this furiant is one of the highlights of Dvoraks symphony, wild and energetic and filled with unexpected syncopations and dynamic changes. Overall, the concert offers an interesting variety of pieces from the last two centuries.

All of these composers were brilliant orchestra composers, and each was inspired by dance and music for dancing, Perkins said. Its fun to hear how each composer expresses movement through sound, each in his own, individual style.

Of course, for a conductor, its always challenging to create a program for an orchestra that you havent worked with before.

I wanted to make a varied program that balanced old favorites, like Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, with music that the orchestra and audience may not have heard but will enjoy, such as the Moncayo and Lutoslawski, Perkins said. I considered many options, and this was my favorite.

He described it as a big, substantial program.

There are no easy pieces here, and the orchestra and I are working hard together to make a fine performance, Perkins said. They have a great work ethic, and I am enjoying the rehearsal process with them. I think our audiences will enjoy the results.

Each piece is different and each offers many levels of satisfaction and stimulation for expert and casual listeners, Perkins said. Beyond that, I hope the audience appreciates our orchestra and the gift that they give to the community when they perform. Thats a special thing for any community to have.

Currently, the orchestra has a strong core of dedicated players, Perkins said, who are willing to dive in and work hard on the most challenging and rewarding repertoire.

They are open-minded and responsive to new ideas and challenges, so Id like to build on that and help the orchestra continue to grow artistically, he said. I want to do all that I can to make the Waukegan area aware of their emphasis on their orchestra. Waukegan is a growing and diverse area, with substantial African-American and Spanish-speaking communities, and I want everyone to know that this orchestra is for them, as participants or as concertgoers.

Waukegan Symphony Orchestras Dance! Concert

Where: Waukegan High Schools Trapp Auditorium, 2325 Brookside Ave.

Tickets: $10-$15; children 18 and under free

Jen Banowetz is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.

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