BAGHDAD – A 13-year-old piano prodigy from Los Angeles brought an Iraqi audience to their feet Saturday when he made a rare guest appearance with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad, a city struggling to revive its once-vibrant cultural scene.
Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner, who studies piano and composition at New York’s renowned Juilliard School, got a standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd of about 250 after performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and warmly embraced the conductor.
Most of the audience at Baghdad’s Rasheed Hotel was Iraqi, though a few American soldiers were in the crowd.
“It was just amazing,” said the slim, energetic teenager with long, wavy brown hair. “We connected well with this orchestra. I like the spontaneity of it. Honestly we had a ball up there.”
Llewellyn arrived in the Iraqi capital Friday for the first time with his mother and father and admitted he was a little scared.
“I’ve never had a bulletproof vest on before and a helmet and all this protection,” he said. “Honestly, before I got here, I was a little scared. But as soon as I arrived, I felt safe in a way.”
His father, Llewellyn Werner, and his California-based private investment firm have been working in Baghdad alongside the U.S. Department of Defense for three years. The father met the conductor of the Iraqi orchestra and proposed that his son come over to play with them.
“My son leaped at the opportunity enthusiastically,” he said. “He came here with absolute fearlessness because he believes the music brings down barriers.”
Karim Wasfi, the chief conductor and director of the orchestra, praised his young guest.
“He is very talented. He is a genius, actually,” Wasfi said.
As for his orchestra, Wasfi joked about the difficulties of getting 90 musicians and their instruments through multiple checkpoints in the dangerous city.
“I am amazed how easy it is for bombs to move around Baghdad and how difficult it is to transport musical instruments,” he quipped.