Soft power and a rapturous ovation
Feb 28th 2008 | PYONGYANG
From The Economist print edition
North Koreans listened to music they had never heard before—Gershwin, Dvorak and the “Star-Spangled Banner”—in an historic first visit by an American orchestra
FOR at least 90 minutes in a theatre in Pyongyang it was possible for those attending a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to believe that 55 years of cold-war hostility were coming to an end. North Koreans said they were impressed by the music of their foe. Their American guests, astonished to be there at all, spoke of a thaw beginning.
For citizens of a country in economic ruin, hope is readily clutched at. Power shortages mean frequent blackouts. Heating is erratic. Food prices are soaring. Buses carried the American visitors along desolate snow-dusted streets almost devoid of normal life: only a trickle of vehicles, few lights, no crowds of shoppers. The buses drove past a billboard showing a giant fist slamming into the cartoon figure of a little American soldier. On the eve of the orchestra's visit the North Korean media were still warning, as they had done since most of those attending the concert were born, of the immediate danger of an American-provoked war.
But at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre history was made on February 26th. On either side of the stage the American and North Korean flags were suspended on silver poles. Not since the 1950-53 Korean war has the Stars and Stripes been so publicly displayed in North Korea.
For the first time many in the audience—and nationwide, thanks to a rare live television and radio broadcast—heard America's national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Lorin Maazel, the orchestra's music director, conducted it right after North Korea's national anthem as the 1,000 people attending stood with arms respectfully to their sides. The foreigners there—among them, the 100-member orchestra, a former American defence secretary, William Perry, and Yoko Nagae Ceschina, the rich Japanese widow of an Italian count, who helped pay for the North Korean visit—included the biggest American contingent to visit Pyongyang since the city was briefly occupied by American forces during the Korean war.
Most of the music was unfamiliar to North Koreans, who would never have been to a performance that did not include some adulatory reference to the Workers' Party, its founder Kim Il Sung and his son and successor as supreme leader, Kim Jong Il. Western classical music is permitted, but in limited doses. The first (and occasionally the fourth) movement from Dmitri Shostakovich's “Leningrad” symphony is a favourite, bundled with North Korean works like “Glory to General Kim Jong Il” and “The Sea of Blood”.
The Philharmonic's programme had a propaganda twist to it too. It began on neutral ground with the boisterous prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner's “Lohengrin”. Then followed two pieces showcasing America's classical-music heritage: Antonin Dvorak's “New World Symphony” (though a Czech, Dvorak composed it in America and the Philharmonic gave it its premiere in 1893) and George Gershwin's “An American in Paris” from 1928. Dvorak's famous (to non-North Koreans at least) cor anglais solo echoed the lugubrious tones of some of North Korea's musical fare, but the cocky jauntiness of the Gershwin bordered on a forbidden realm.
The encores—another novelty in North Korea, where performers stick to the printed programme—began with Georges Bizet's brassy “L'Arlésienne” suite. Next came a favourite routine from the Philharmonic's repertoire. Mr Maazel introduced the composer as his late predecessor, Leonard Bernstein. He then left the stage to let an imaginary Bernstein conduct the piece, the overture to his operetta “Candide”. An American critic quipped in reference to North Korea's Kim dynasty that this was perhaps a metaphor for leaders running things long after they have died. North Koreans in the audience (members of the country's elite—the tickets were not for sale) wore metal badges on their chests showing Kim senior's portrait.
The climax was saved for last. As the first notes of “Arirang”, a Korean folk song, were played murmurs rippled across the hall. The tune is familiar to Koreans on both sides of the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula. It has become an undeclared anthem of longing for unification. North Korea stages an “Arirang” festival every year in which 100,000 people perform a series of mass callisthenics.
The orchestra received a rapturous standing ovation. Even North Korea's most senior attendee, Vice-President Yang Hyong Sop, readily got to his feet. The Americans were overjoyed. “To say I am over the moon tonight is an understatement,” Zarin Mehta, president of the orchestra, told the players at a celebratory banquet back at the Yanggakdo hotel. Mr Maazel told reporters that the Philharmonic had not been given such an enthusiastic reception in a long time. “They could have played ‘Chopsticks’ and it wouldn't have mattered,” said a Pyongyang-based diplomat in the audience. That it happened at all was what delighted the North Koreans.
The State Department was an enthusiastic backer of the visit. When the orchestra received the invitation by fax from Pyongyang last August, it turned to the government for advice. Christopher Hill, America's top negotiator with North Korea, encouraged the orchestra to accept. Tensions between the two countries over North Korea's nuclear programme were beginning to ease. North Korea had shut down its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in July. In June Mr Hill had paid the first visit to North Korea by an American official since President Bush had described the country in 2002 as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
Orchestras have long acted as goodwill ambassadors during political stand-offs. In 1956 the Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first prominent American ensemble to play in the Soviet Union. The Philharmonic itself, then under Bernstein, followed three years later. In 1973 the Philadelphia Orchestra performed in Beijing, an event that symbolised a sea change in America's relations with China following President Nixon's visit there a year earlier. “Our small symphony is a giant leap,” said Mr Mehta when he announced the Pyongyang visit last December. “What follows from that is up to the diplomats to deal with. All we can do is show the way that music can unite people.”
Fortunately for the Philharmonic the North Koreans did not say what music they wanted. In official propaganda, Kim Jong Il is portrayed (flatteringly of course) as a musical micro-manager. He set out his principles in a speech to musicians in 1968 at the age of 26. Music must serve the revolution, he said. It must not be based on “uproarious Western music”. The great leader (his father), he said, liked “lively and militant marches”. Mr Kim said he had initially thought that the song “Kim Il Sung is our Sun” sounded good in D major. But his father had advised E major as better for expressing emotions richly.
Choosing what to play in Pyongyang proved the easy part. Finding a suitable venue and getting the orchestra and instruments there were more difficult. The seat of the State Symphony Orchestra, the Moranbong Theatre (recently refurbished under Kim Jong Il's guidance—“no details escaped him,” gushed the state news agency), was rejected as too small. The East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, though bigger, needed modifications to bring its acoustic qualities up to the Philharmonic's standards (the North Koreans obligingly made the alterations, including building an “acoustic shell”, at their own expense).
Pyongyang's harsh winter and shattered economy were obstacles too. Organisers worried that the instruments would be damaged by temperature variations as they were transported into and around the city. The chandelier-decked foyer of the venue itself was freezing. Mr Mehta held talks at the foreign ministry with an official wearing a thick overcoat in his office. Pyongyang's heating has been so bad this winter that residents complain they cannot remember the last time they were able to have a shower, says a diplomat.
Unable to find any heated trucks in North Korea to carry the instruments, the orchestra arranged for some to drive up from South Korea (South Korea's Asiana Airlines provided a Boeing 747 jet to fly the orchestra itself in and out of Pyongyang). The North Koreans promised good heating at the hotel and venue—and they delivered it. Mr Mehta had to ask for a window in his room to be unsealed so that he could get a bit of cool air.
The authorities spared no effort to isolate the Americans from the reality of life in Pyongyang. Some attempting a morning jog were turned back by guards at the perimeter of their hotel. Officials like to put foreigners there. It is on an island in Pyongyang's Taedong River from which it is difficult to get into the city proper, and there are no taxis available. When they were not rehearsing or performing during their 48-hour stay, the Americans were taken on bus tours of the city's monuments, including a giant bronze statue of the late President Kim—the country's leader during the Korean war.
But will all this bonhomie—both contrived and genuine—really change anything? Donald Gregg, a former American ambassador to South Korea who attended the performance, called it a “16-inch broadside of soft power into the hearts and minds of the [North] Korean people.” But conservative American commentators have attacked it as pandering to a brutal regime. History suggests orchestral diplomacy may be of little real relevance. The Boston Symphony's visit to the Soviet Union was followed soon after by the crushing of the Hungarian uprising. America's relations with China fared better after 1973, but its alignment against the Soviet Union was the critical factor. America has no strategic interests in North Korea beyond stopping it from being a menace.
For all the hoopla, North Korea's main state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, relegated news of the performance to a dry piece at the bottom of page four (a story about flowers sent by Kim Jong Il to Cuba's new president, Raúl Castro, dominated the front page). If nothing else, the impact might simply be cultural. One official brought up on a diet of revolutionary tunes said he knew nothing before about classical music from the West. Emerging from the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre he admitted, “Now I like it.” The Philharmonic did achieve something.