The orchestra has not been paid for a special concert given at the Kennedy Center in February, and the man who arranged the concert is blaming the ambassadors of three Arab states, particularly Kuwait, for bounced checks, angry musicians and a deficit of approximately $46,500.
Nazih Girgis, a native of Egypt living in Washington and founder and chairman of the U.S.-Mid-East Council on Performing Arts, said he arranged the concert for Arab music lovers after receiving assurances of support from Ambassador Saud Al-Sabah of Kuwait, Ambassador Ghazi Algosaibi of Bahrain and Saleh Al-Rajhy, counselor at the Saudi Arabian Embassy.
"I have nothing in writing," Girgis said, "but I have a witness, a colleague of mine." In a separate interview, the colleague, Jinane Bacho, confirmed Girgis's reports of his conversations with the three diplomats, often using almost the same words. Bacho is the treasurer and art director of the council.
One of the diplomats disagreed; the others did not answer messages left at their embassies. "These charges are baseless," said Saudi Arabia's Rajhy. "He solicited some money, just as many other organizations do; that does not mean they will get it. No promise was made to him, verbally or in writing."
Girgis was particularly upset at the Kuwaiti ambassador, who is chairman of the council's honorary board. He said Al-Sabah had "promised a big grant" and agreed to pay "the orchestra fees, including the cost of a videotape and the conductor's fee. ... Now 63 American artists and their families must suffer because that money has not been provided."
Al-Sabah "spoke very strongly, firmly and enthusiastically. He said, in Arabic and English: 'By my honor, take my word on it, I will support you. You will get a check in the mail very soon.' In Arab culture, this kind of statement is as binding as a written and signed agreement. We have a saying: 'A promise by a free man becomes his debt.' Every Arab man knows this saying," said Girgis.
The Saudi counselor promised to get "a big grant" from Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, Girgis said. "He told me, 'Just give me four days to breathe.' On the strength of this, I invited 800 students from the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria to attend the concert. He seemed very enthusiastic. He knew the pianist, Ramzi Yassa, who played Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto, and said he would be very happy to help us. But apparently his highness never heard anything about us from Mr. Rajhy."
Algosaibi, the ambassador of Bahrain, "said he would support us and get us grants from his government, banks and companies in Bahrain," Girgis said, "but no specific dollar amount was mentioned." He said he had received no money from any of these sources.
"I wanted to improve Arab American relations," Girgis said, "but it is not working that way. If they could not deliver, they should not have promised; we could have canceled and I could have saved my reputation."
A tour of the Middle East by the National Symphony Orchestra, which Girgis had been discussing with NSO officials, "will not happen now," Girgis said. "I am told that the Kennedy Center will no longer do business with Arabs." (A Kennedy Center spokesman later said that this is not true.)
On May 7, the members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sent a petition to Clovis Maksoud, ambassador of the League of Arab States, saying they were owed "$28,761.48 for the concert, including the sum of $6,000 owed to Maestro Cal Stewart Kellogg." In a cover letter sent to Maksoud with the musicians' petition, Girgis said that "after the concert, I was forced to give people postdated checks, based on the promises I received from embassies and ambassadors. Checks were returned and the situation started to be embarrassing."
Earlier, Maksoud had obtained a $12,000 grant from the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, of which Girgis said "$10,000 went directly to the musicians." Other debts included $6,000 still owed to the Kennedy Center and the cost of videotaping the concert.
Girgis said he received financial assistance from other Arab diplomats as well as corporate grants from AT&T and Mobil Oil. Ambassador Abdulla Zayed Al-Nahayyan of the United Arab Emirates "was very generous and helped me all the way," Girgis said. Ambassador Hamad Al-Kawari of Qatar "at least ... paid for his tickets," he added. "Egypt, Jordan and Yemen have morally supported us, but I know they don't have any budget for anything like this; they are poor countries."