The Afghan Youth Orchestra, many of whose members are not far removed from eking out a living on the streets of Kabul, is on the New York leg of a U.S. tour that melds Western classics with traditional Afghan music.
About 50 players held a joint rehearsal Monday with 25 members of the Scarsdale High School orchestra, which meant that young musicians from a war-torn country where music was banned for several years by the Taliban were playing alongside those from one of New York's toniest suburbs.
"This is all providing a model for the future of Afghanistan," said William Harvey, the Afghan orchestra's American conductor and arranger. "The recomposed music, taking the best from both worlds, and the cooperation between the Afghan kids and the Scarsdale kids, shows what has to happen for Afghanistan."
Among the pieces rehearsed in advance of Tuesday night's Carnegie program were adaptations of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Ravel's "Bolero," both incorporating Afghan instruments and rhythms.
A handful of people in the Scarsdale auditorium got to hear familiar melodies perked up with such instruments as the sitar, dilruba and ghichak. Some of the Afghan musicians were barefoot.
"I love the 'Bolero,'" said Milad Yousofi, 18, a pianist from Kabul who, like the rest of the orchestra, attends the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which was founded just three years ago.
Yousofi is hoping the orchestra's U.S. visit—it played in Washington last week and is headed for Boston—will help him find a way to continue his musical education in America.
"I'm very excited and amazed that we are going to Carnegie Hall," he said. "New York is my dream city. I want to come here as soon as possible. But then I want to go back to Afghanistan and teach."
Hojat Hameed, 21, a violinist who also plays electric guitar in a rock band, said he became interested in music when he heard a Celine Dion recording.
"That made me want to become a musician," he said. "I could feel I wanted to come home to music."
Some of the Afghans may have been saved from desperate lives by the music school.
"One of my violinists used to sell chewing gum on the street," said Harvey, who spoke to the musicians in English and Dari, one of Afghanistan's two main languages. "She had to. The Taliban had beaten her father paralyzed and he couldn't work."
"The return of music to Afghanistan is a victory of the human spirit," Harvey said.
Ahmad Sarmast, who founded the school, said hearing the orchestra play was "a touching experience."
"The Taliban deprived children of their music," he said. "It was like a genocide of music. Now this is an incredible way of showing pride in our people, our youth, our school, our country."
He said the school, which is funded by the World Bank and others, is free and provides enough of a stipend to keep the musicians off the streets. And it accepts boys and girls, another reversal of Taliban orders.
Amedee Williams, who heads the Scarsdale music program, said he heard last year that the Afghan school was trying to raise funds for a tour. He contacted the school and suggested their orchestra members could save on New York hotels by staying with Scarsdale families. That turned out not to be necessary, but it forged a partnership that resulted in the Scarsdale orchestra joining the Afghans at Carnegie Hall.
Before the joint orchestra rehearsed on Sunday, he said, all the youngsters had pizza. Afterward, they went ice skating, which was a new activity for the Afghans "and some of the Scarsdale kids," Williams said.
"There was a lot of hand-holding, supporting each other," he said. "It was good to see."