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DPRK seeks gain in orchestra visit

PYONGYANG--Tuesday's landmark performance in Pyongyang by the New York Philharmonic, the United States' oldest orchestra, was marked by North Korea's efforts to choreograph the welcome for the group.

But the concert, though televised live, was not widely publicized to ordinary citizens in Pyongyang, and the audience was mostly made up of high-ranking officials of the government and Workers Party of Korea. This made many observers wonder whether exchanges with the North Korean people could be deepened through the "diplomacy of music," as claimed by the U.S. officials concerned.

The concert was held at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theater near the central part of the capital city. The most prestigious orchestra in the United States started by playing the anthems of the two countries--that of North Korea first, followed by that of the United States. The North Korean audience listened quietly while the national anthem of the United States, with which North Korea fought a bloody war from 1950 to 1953, was played.

The concert was televised live by Korean Central Television, but the Korean Central Broadcasting Station did not air the concert on radio. It was very rare for North Korean state television to broadcast such an event live, indicating Pyongyang's enthusiasm for improving relations with Washington.

Music director Lorin Maazel explained in English each number to be played, inserting a Korean phrase that means "Please enjoy"--a gesture that helped break the ice.

When Maazel introduced George Gershwin's work titled "An American In Paris," he said, "In the future, there may be a piece titled 'An American in Pyongyang,'" drawing rapturous applause from the audience.

The contingent traveling to Pyongyang consisted of 280 people, including 130 New York Philharmonic orchestra members and staff plus press--the biggest ever delegation from the United States to North Korea, far surpassing the about 100 when then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000. A majority of the 80 accompanying reporters were from the U.S. media. They energetically collected material for reports, sometimes frowning upon intervention by a government minder who also served as an interpreter.

But it seems likely that the expectations of the orchestra and U.S. government officials that the concert would help the North Korean people know more about U.S. culture were not met.

In the theater, the front and balcony seats were occupied mostly by senior officials of the North Korean government and the Workers Party, with back seats taken by artists and music school students. Most conspicuous were the elite high-ranking officials dressed in business suits.

There were no banners or posters advertising the orchestra's performance in Pyongyang except at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater itself. A citizen interviewed near Pyongyang Station said, "I didn't know when the concert was scheduled to be held."

A musician from the Mansude Art Performance Team, who was among the concert audience, said, "It's nice to see that the orchestra started by playing the national anthem of our country."

Asked how the performance would affect relations with the United States, the musician gave the standard reply, saying "It depends on what Washington does."

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Difficult to draw parallels

U.S. orchestras played concerts in hostile states such as the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War period to help improve relations with such countries.

The New York Philharmonic held a concert in the Soviet Union in 1959.

In an article he contributed to the Wall Street Journal, Maazel said many people whispered "thanks for coming" when he conducted the orchestra in Moscow during the Cold War.

Maazel recalled in the article how Soviet people felt the visit by foreign artists, particularly those from the United States, indicated that they had not been forgotten by the rest of the world.

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first U.S. orchestra to perform in China. Its performance is said to have contributed to improving relations with Beijing in tandem with the diplomatic efforts being made at the time.

North Korea is a more secretive country than the Soviet Union and China and most of its people have little access to classical music. For this reason, it is difficult to compare the significance of the New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang with the earlier concerts held in the Soviet Union and China.

(Feb. 28, 2008)
AP News
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