On the morning of 12 February, President Obama announced the return of 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by January, 2014. This pronouncement made the concert at Carnegie Hall that night especially poignant. With introductions from the Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall, Clive Gillinson, and the Deputy Education Minister from Afghanistan, Mohammad Asif Nang, it was clear this concert was more than a celebration of art and culture – it was a concert for peace and friendship.

So when the famous Bolero was played on a variety of Afghan instruments, the wiry, metallic sounds that emanated from various lute-like and bowed instruments were refreshing and new. And for a melody that is so ingrained in western culture, it was exciting to hear it performed by musicians from a cultural background so seemingly different from our own.

William Harvey, founding conductor of the Afghan Youth Orchestra, as well as the violin and viola teacher at ANIM, arranges the youth orchestra’s entire repertoire. Aiming to bridge Afghan and Western music cultures, Harvey re-imagined Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in a thoroughly Afghan context. The most obvious departure was the heavy use of tabla, a popular percussion instrument throughout South and Central Asia. In the opening movement, the tabla lead the full orchestra into Vivaldi’s theme; it drove the fast 7/8 meter – a traditional Afghan mughuli rhythm –throughout the Summer storm, and it joined back in a warm affirmation of the theme towards the end of the piece. Using such complex rhythms, plus a myriad of unusual instruments – the sarod (a plucked string instrument with a weighty, brassy sound) and ghicak (a bowed instrument made of metal) in particular – in combination with traditional symphonic sounds took Vivaldi out of Europe and into the heart of the Middle East. In Pistachios, the third movement of Spring, the banter between the second cello section and the rubab (a plucked, lute-like instrument, considered the national instrument of Afghanistan) was so playful and childlike, it was easy to imagine that Perelman Stage was a bustling marketplace and that girls and boys were selling pistachios (a favorite Afghan snack), on the dusty city streets of Kabul.

But these young musicians really shone in their performances of traditional Afghan and Middle Eastern music. The last piece, Shakok jan, an Afghan folk song, had audience members clapping in their seats; some were dancing as well. The entire concert was a tremendous nod to ANIM and their counterparts at Scarsdale High School, but it was not until now that the orchestra played seamlessly as a unit: bold, bright and confident. It was as if these young musicians felt more at ease without a conductor on stage. The theme traveled across the orchestra and across the stage, emanating from the flute, then the clarinet, oboe, saxophone, French horn, a pair of violins, cello, bass guitar and finally, the piano and xylophone, who finished the piece with a jazzy flourish. The energy was incredible – even as the orchestra played the piece a second time as an encore.

With financial backing from big wigs like the World Bank, Carnegie Corporation and the US Department of State, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) boasts over 9.5 million students, 40% of whom are girls. Working mainly to assist the most disadvantaged groups in Afghan society – girls, orphans and street-working children – the Institute stands as a model of progressive education in a country rife with turmoil and violence. And their success was abundantly clear. I can’t wait for the day that I get to say, "Oh! I saw that violinist/sitar/saxophone/tabla player at Carnegie Hall when she was just a child!" Believe me, that day is nearly upon us.