New York Philharmonic Heads to North Korea

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra will travel to North Korea on Monday after performing on Sunday in Beijing. Observers are watching and hoping — cautiously — that this is a sign that North Korea is more willing to open up to the outside world.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is heading to Pyongyang tomorrow in one of the highest level cultural exchanges ever between the U.S. and North Korea. Observers are watching and hoping, cautiously, that this is a sign that North Korea is more willing to open to the outside world.

Today the orchestra performed in the Chinese capital.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

ANTHONY KUHN: The Philharmonic led off tonight's concert with Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. It was at the new National Performing Arts Center, a futuristic titanium covered dome designed by French architect Paul Andreu and located diagonally opposite the Forbidden City.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: For years American musicians were forbidden here in China until the Philadelphia Orchestra came in 1973, a year after President Nixon's visit. Neither could have happened without the athletic exchanges known as ping-pong diplomacy.

Today world-class Chinese and foreign musicians often perform in Beijing, although many in the audience here tonight were still new to this kind of thing.

Beijing residence Li Liun(ph) was milling around with her family during intermission time.

Ms. LI LIUN (Concertgoer): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: We brought our daughter here to experience some highbrow culture, she said. We've heard Chinese folk music before this is our first time going to a Western music concert.

Tomorrow the New York Philharmonic will set out for North Korea for a round of cultural diplomacy. Their program in Pyongyang on Tuesday night will include Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and Gershwin's "An American in Paris," as well as the American and North Korean national anthems.

With the U.S. and North Korea still technically at war the visit reminds philharmonic President Zarin Mehta of when Leonard Bernstein led the orchestra to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Mr. ZARIN MEHTA (President, New York Philharmonic): When Lenny went with the philharmonic to Moscow in '59, you didn't have the Internet and you didn't have television going live. North Korea is not as big and as important a country as Russia and China were but I think as being the last bastion of that kind of era I think it's going to mean a lot.

KUHN: Pyongyang invited the Philharmonic late last year, just days after President Bush sent a personal letter to North Korean President Kim Jong-il. In it he pledged to normalize diplomatic relations if North Korea gave up its nuclear programs. But recently the political process has lost momentum and North Korea has balked at revealing the full extent of its nuclear programs.

On Friday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downplayed expectations for the philharmonic's visit.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): From my point of view it's a good thing that the philharmonic is going but the North Korean regime is still the North Korean regime, and so I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.

KUHN: North Korea watchers say that this symphonic diplomacy could be a distraction, or should we say a divertimento, from the more pressing issue of nuclear disarmament.

Marcus Noland is a North Korean expert at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. He says Pyongyang is waiting to see what incoming administrations installed this month and in Washington next year will bring.

Mr. MARCUS NOLAND (North Korean Expert, Peterson Institute of International Economics): Until that nuclear issue is resolved we can send symphonies to North Korea every week but it isn't going to lead to a fundamental improvement in political relationship between the United States and North Korea.

KUHN: Despite official U.S. approval for the trip, the philharmonic has come under fire from skeptics who think that it will just hand Kim Jong-il a propaganda victory.

But Zarin Mehta says that this is the musical mission that the philharmonic wants.

Mr. MEHTA: Our board has supported it, our musicians have supported. I was in 95 percent of opinion in New York and in America and around the world have supported. Yes, there are few people who think that we shouldn't have dialogue. I don't happen to believe that one should not have dialogue in any circumstances.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Besides the concert the Philharmonic will perform chamber music and hold master classes with North Korean musicians. North Korean television is due to broadcast the concert nationwide. Today North Korea's official news agency called the orchestra one of the world's top three, even as the ruling party's main newspaper blasted the U.S. and warmongers for holding joint military exercises with South Korea.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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The New York Philharmonic Plays Pyongyang

The New York Philharmonic rehearses in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater.

The New York Philharmonic was the first major American orchestra to be invited to perform in North Korea. Chris Lee hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Lee

New York Phil Plays Pyongyang

Hear more stories on the orchestra's historic visit to North Korea.

Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic i i

The New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR

Amid the continuing see-saw of nuclear talks and political posturing between North Korea and the U.S., the New York Philharmonic may have played a role in softening relations between the two countries.

Conductor Lorin Maazel led a historic concert Feb. 26th in Pyongyang, as the New York Philharmonic became the first major American orchestra to perform in the insulated communist country. North Korean officials broadcast the concert nationwide and internationally.

Along with recently stalled nuclear talks, there's the lasting stigma of the Korean War (1950-53). Technically, North Korea and South Korea remain at war, as the conflict ended in an armed truce that never developed into a formal peace agreement.

Perhaps a little Gershwin and Dvorak has placated the Pyongyang government. Maazel and the New York musicians came to the North Korean capital armed with the "New World" Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak and the rollicking An American in Paris by George Gershwin.

The event, initiated by North Korea and coordinated with help from the State Department, has been hailed as both a great success of artistic diplomacy and a failed play into the hands of an evil regime.

Christopher R. Hill, the Bush administration's diplomat in negotiations with North Korea, suggested in a New York Times story that "It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process."

After the concert, which included an encore of "Arirang," North Korea's most famous traditional folk song, conductor Lorin Maazel said he was surprised at the overwhelming response.

"When we received this very warm, enthusiastic reception, we felt that indeed there may be a mission accomplished here. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door, and we certainly hope that if that is true, in the long run it will be seen as a watershed."

Maazel wasn't the only New Yorker moved by the event. The Philharmonic's principal bassist, John Deak, said when the musicians started leaving the stage, the North Koreans started waving at them.

"Half of the orchestra burst into tears, including myself and we started waving back at them and suddenly there was this kind of artistic bond that is just a miracle. I'm not going to make any statements about what's going to change or everything. Things happen slowly. But I do know that the most profound connection was made with the Korean people tonight."

But not everyone is lining up to cheer the Philharmonic's visit.

In an article published on Bloomberg.com, the outspoken British critic Norman Lebrecht calls the event "somewhere along the scale of morally inappropriate and aesthetically offensive." He derides the North Korean government for "starving its own people," and doubts that any of the "average citizens," who are reportedly free to attend the concert, will indeed hear any music.

Critic Terry Teachout, in the online opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, wrote that the Philharmonic visit amounts to "little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime."

The New York Philharmonic is not the first American orchestra to participate in what some might call symphonic diplomacy. In September 1956, the Boston Symphony was the first major U.S. orchestra to visit the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and in the fall of 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra made an unprecedented trip to China.

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