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NY Philharmonic in Pyongyang

Posted at 5:15 PM on February 28, 2008 by Fred Child (9 Comments)

On one level, it was a fairly typical classical concert. An orchestra playing to a full and polite house, with well-dressed and attentive listeners who cleared their throats between movements and clapped generously at the end of each piece.
On another level, it was utterly unlike any other concert this *century* (so far). With the substance and meaning of the event varying dramatically, depending on who you ask.

On Tuesday (February 26), the New York Philharmonic became the first major American ensemble to play in North Korea.

The concert has become the center of a sharp debate among classical music observers, and political observers. But both sides begin with the assumption that the concert was not simply about making music.

Some say it was a pioneering cultural exchange, the first step toward warming relations between two countries who have been officially at war for more than 50 years. Other say it was at best a naive blunder, at worst an act that legitimizes a murderous regime.

First, a quick survey of comments on the concert, with links to full stories or comments. Below, you'll find links to videos and more information.

NY Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel

I am a musician and not a politician. Music has always traditionally been an arena, an area where people make contact. It's neutral, it's entertainment, it's person-to-person. If the music moves the audience, we will have made whatever contribution we can make to bringing our peoples just one tiny step closer.

Norman Lebrecht

I doubt that I am the only critic who finds this somewhere along the scale between morally inappropriate and aesthetically offensive.

The Economist

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.

Victor Cha, Director of Asian Studies, Georgetown University

I believe that the Philharmonic's performance in North Korea last night was a wonderful piece of cultural diplomacy.

Pianist & U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.

Justin Davidson in New York Magazine

We suspect that the most subversive sounds to be beamed from the hall into that gray country were the jaunty, buoyant rhythms of "American in Paris," because they brim with a resource that seems scarce in North Korea: joy.

North Korean defector Ma Soon Hee, quoted by Radio Free Asia

Rather than sit around and listen to classical music, people have to spend that time to go out and pluck another bunch of weeds to sell or boil in their pot at home.

Financial Times Op-Ed

...this week's event offered powerful testimony to what you might call the other dimension of American power...the orchestra was a stunning hit.

North Korea's state-run news service, on preparations for the concert

Perfect are the harp-shaped walls of the seating hall, the stage and latest sound facilities. Now the threatre is fully prepared for the successful performance of the New York Philharmonic. Sound reflection boards have been newly manufactured and installed so as to ensure the reverberation effect of the symphonic music on the highest level. And the theatre has been furnished with music stands, chairs for players, the lighting and other facilities to suite the features of the performance of symphony orchestra.

Donald Kirk

The Korean peninsula reached a kind of turning point this week, with the inauguration on Monday of conservative former business leader Lee Myung-bak as president of South Korea and the historic performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra today in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

Sever Plocker

America's cultural elite has embraced the darkest, maddest, and most murderous regime on earth.

William Perry, Secretary of Defense under President Clinton

When we had musical exchanges with the Soviet Union, it took many, many years before we saw any results but the results were good.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino

...we consider this concert to be a concert, and it was not a diplomatic coup.

Terry Teachout has been an articulate and persistent critic of the concert. Teachout did this video interview on YouTube. In the first 90 seconds, Teachout expresses his deep distress at the Philharmonic's trip.

The Wall Street Journal sent two reporters, their coverage has been thorough and thoughtful. Reporting, blogs, galleries, think pieces.

There are dozens of grainy videos of the concert on YouTube, including some entertainingly wacky segments. But by far the best place I've found for video of the concert is at the PBS Great Performances website.

And WNYC's John Schaefer joined me on the phone from Pyongyang right after the concert, you can hear our conversation in the features section on the top-right of the PT homepage.

Can't wait to hear your thoughts...

Comments ( 9 )

Hi Fred,
I actually will be one of the few that think that the New York Philharmonic's trip to North Korea is a good thing no matter what many may have written otherwise. At least it presents a friendlier side of our country than what the cuirrent administration's policies would have many to believe.
Although the general public was not invited (they were not, I believe, invited to attend The Philadelphia Orchestra's visit to China in 1973 either), at least there is a start of a dialogue which is sorely needed these days.
My best wishes to Lorin Maazel, the New York Philharmonic musicians and, of course, to yoursef (if that's applicable!).
Yours sincerely,
Richard Jessen

Posted by Richard Jessen | February 29, 2008 9:00 AM

I think the New York Philharmonic's trip to North Korea was excellent for diplomacy and friendship building. You cannot get along if you don't talk. This happens in families as well as countries. You must communicate. It is normal to have differences, and everyone will not always agree, but you must have dialogue. My congratulations to the New York Philharmonic. They have brought the world one step closer to peace.
Nancy Sears

Posted by Nancy Sears | February 29, 2008 10:00 AM

Hurray for the NY Philharmonic in promoting humanity! This story brings back memories of the Cold War. I grew up believing that Communists were "evil." How surprised I was when I made a professional touring trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1982. I saw women playing with their children in parks, and old ladies sweeping the sidewalks. Local residents helped me when I got lost in the Moscow subway system. Wow! Pretty much like us.

Now I know that our governments might spin idealogical differences, but we are all pretty much the same-- wanting to raise our children in peace. We don't know that unless we make contact with one another. How better to do that than through music -- the universal language!

Posted by Karen | February 29, 2008 2:09 PM

Music can make a huge difference. Karl Haas once said that a musical event is often is a great diplomat. Good for the NYPhil!

Posted by Donald Machen | February 29, 2008 5:41 PM

What a touching performance! I am Korean-American and although I really do not know much about North Korea and it's politics, I do know that the New York Philharmonic playing "Arirang" brought streams of tears to my face. It is a rather sad old folk song reflecting how difficult life was. I grew up hearing the song. It was so beautifully done, it truly "spoke" the tone and sadness of the song without lyrics. Thank you for traveling and reaching out to people that may not be fortunate to hear such music! I think that visit and performance will have a positive and much lasting effect for years to come!

Posted by Shannon Kim Fontana | February 29, 2008 8:47 PM

I say Congrats to the New York Phil and everyone connected with getting them to North Korea. I really do not know what is the matter with these people who have to find something negative in such a happening. As one other comment-er said, music is the universal language. Not one opportunity for "speaking" that language with others should be lost. Maybe the Boston Symphony should be next!

Posted by Joan L. Baxter | March 1, 2008 4:02 PM

Dear Mr. Child,
At around 1:30 AM on 3/1/08 you played a motet for 40 voices and then followed that with Tallis'
Spem in Alium. Who was the composer and what was the name of the piece? (I was driving and couldn't write it down). Thanks, Ken Geller

Posted by Ken Geller | March 2, 2008 8:39 PM

Hi Ken,

That was a gorgeous performance of "Ecce Beatam Lucem," by Alessandro Striggio. Paul van Nevel conducting the Huelgas Ensemble in concert at an abbey in Bourges, France. Much more info about this little known but amazing piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2007/aboutmusic/p6_striggio_ecce_beatam_lucem.shtml

That concert recording we played (like almost everything we play on Performance Today) is not available on CD, but the Huelgas Ensemble does have a fine recording of the piece, which also includes Spem in Alium. It's called "Utopia Triumphans," on the Sony Classical label.

Hope this helps, glad you enjoyed it!

Posted by Fred Child | March 2, 2008 11:09 PM

It's silly, if not tragic, to suppose that the NY Philharmonic visit to a police state made any possible difference in the lives of the people there. To apply personal or family morality to a rogue state, as though the PDRK is somehow a naughty brother in the family of nations, is to accept a sociopath as a sibling of equal standing. The sociopath will end up manipulating the entire family and potentially ruining an otherwise healthy environment.

Posted by Jack Niewold | March 6, 2008 9:28 AM

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