Aired worldwide at 6 p.m. yesterday, the New York Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang began with North Korea’s national anthem. It was slightly slow and sounded grandiose. The next song was the national anthem of the United States. Also played were George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” symphony and Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”
It was quite a sensation for the U.S. national anthem to have been played for the first time on North Korean soil since the two fought against one another in the 1950-53 Korean War. It was even more incredible that it was not played as an encore, but as part of the regular program. This is meaningful in that the event could play a role in easing tensions in the region, just as was the case decades ago when U.S. musicians performed in China and Russia.
The U.S. media is portraying the performance as a historic stepping stone for better relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Just before the musicians started to play, the Philharmonic’s music director Lorin Maazel emphasized the significance of the performance in Pyongyang. While he cautioned against adding a political spin to the orchestra’s performance, he warned against drawing a parallel to other, similar historic events. Zarin Mehta, the president of the orchestra, also told reporters that the performance in Pyongyang would be the first step toward future cultural exchanges aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries.
North Korea also expressed high expectations for the New York Philharmonic performance. Song Sok-hwan, North Korea’s culture minister, said, “As winter gives way to spring, we are very pleased to welcome these musicians as the first guests of the new year ... We hope this will be a big step toward increased bilateral cultural exchange between our two countries.” Song’s comments might be the response to comments Mehta had made in December. Likening the orchestra’s Pyongyang performance to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, Mehta noted that the performance was like one big step toward South-North Korean unification.
The Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper, hailed the performance, saying that the event could only have been realized amid the great interest of both North Korea and the United States. It added that both countries had reached a range of agreements in the six-party talks and are now taking measures aimed at easing the antagonism it sees as being a major culprit in the nuclear problems on the Korean Peninsula.
Ahead of the performance, 105 U.S. musicians completed their final rehearsal in a Pyongyang theater and held a master class for a group of North Korean college students who are studying music. Before flying to Seoul on Wednesday, the Philharmonic musicians are scheduled to perform with North Korea’s National Symphony Orchestra.
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