BAGHDAD - A 13-year-old piano prodigy from Los Angeles brought an Iraqi audience to its feet Saturday when he made a 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 the Juilliard School in New York, got a standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd of about 250 after performing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and he 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 acknowledged he was a little scared.
"I've never seen anything like this before," he said before the concert, describing his heavily guarded trip past blast walls, concertina wire, and checkpoints on the way from the airport to the hotel in the heavily protected Green Zone.
"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."
Llewellyn said he had been following the news and knew he was in a war zone. But he said he hoped he would break ground with his performance.
"I don't want to be shallow. I know there are strong feelings out there," he said of the Iraqis. "Several mistakes from my country have been made in terms of invasion and occupation. But me being here today is one way to show the U.S. has a lot of wonderful things to offer."
His father, Llewellyn Werner, and his father's California private-investment firm have been working in Baghdad alongside the U.S. Department of Defense for three years. Llewellyn Werner met the conductor of the Iraqi orchestra and proposed that his son play with the ensemble.
"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, 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.
The national orchestra collapsed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when many musicians fled the country. But Wasfi reconstructed it in 2005 with 50 musicians and it has grown to 90.
He said he wanted to keep Iraqi musicians from fleeing sectarian bloodshed during the war.
"I did not want to see them play in bars and at weddings in neighboring countries," Wasfi said. "I was looking for ways to make them stay."
"Even at the height of the sectarian violence, I convinced members of the orchestra to play and practice," Wasfi said. "We'll perform no matter what happens so people have a sense of normalcy."
They perform twice monthly in Baghdad and do concerts around Iraq, but Wasfi said the orchestra had never had an American guest performer.
Cultural life in Iraq largely died down during the violence, and reviving it was not the government's priority. But that is slowly changing.
The government has allocated $120,000 for the orchestra's operational budget and approved the building of an opera house. The national theater is being renovated.
"Iraq is recovering and so is the cultural scene," said Salem al-Moussawi, a 52-year-old businessman who attended Saturday's concert. "I applaud the courage of the young American artist to come here and play for us."
Llewellyn has traveled around the world to perform, his parents said. Last year, he played a private concert in Rwanda for the president's family.
He was fascinated with music from a very young age and began learning piano at 2. He composed his first piece at 5, and began college studies at the same age, his parents said.
By age 6, Llewellyn was a full-time college student, taking advanced music-theory courses.