Orchestra Director Sees 'Tiny Step' in North Korea

The New York Philharmonic's music director, Lorin Maazel, says he believes the concert his orchestra performed Tuesday in Pyongyang, North Korea, could help bring the peoples of the United States and North Korea a "tiny step closer." In an unusual move, North Korea's state-run television and radio broadcast the concert live. It began with the playing of both countries' national anthems. The stage included both the North Korean and American flags.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The U.S. and North Korea may officially still be at war - and they are certainly deadlocked over the nuclear issue - but there was a breakthrough in cultural exchanges today when the New York Philharmonic played its first concert in Pyongyang.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the North Korean capital.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Symphony")

ANTHONY KUHN: The anticipation and buildup to the 90-minute concert was so intense that the East Pyongyang Grand Theater practically radiated emotional energy as the philharmonic launched into the climatic fourth movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony." The concert had begun with the "Star Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem, with the two nations' flags on either side of the stage.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Symphony")

KUHN: Things lightened up a bit when conductor Lorin Maazel introduced the next number, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Mr. LORIN MAAZEL (Conductor, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Someday, a composer may write a work entitled Americans in Pyongyang.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "An American in Paris")

KUHN: A whisper rippled through the audience of some 2,000 elites - "Arirang," "Arirang." It was the country's most famous traditional folk song known and loved by people in both halves of this divided nation.

When that finished, the standing ovation continued for more than five minutes. John Deak is the philharmonic's principal bassist. He says that when the musicians left the stage, the North Koreans started waiving at them and things got emotional.

Mr. JOHN DEAK (Principal Bassist, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Half of the orchestra was bursting with tears, including myself. And we started waiving back at them, and suddenly, there was that kind of artistic bond that is just - it's a miracle. I don't know. I'm not going to make any statements about world peace and when everything's going to change or anything. I don't think this, you know, things happen slowly. But I do know that a - the most profound connection was made with the Korean people tonight.

KUHN: After the concert, Lorin Maazel told reporters that the audiences' response was beyond his expectations.

Mr. MAAZEL: You know, when we received this very warm and enthusiastic reception, we felt that, indeed, there may be a mission accomplished here. It may have been instrumental in opening a little door. And we certainly hope that if that's true, that in the long run, it will be seen as a watershed.

LEE: Music is music, so, as you know, music has no boundary.

KUHN: One North Korean member of the audience, who gave only his family name, Lee, gave the philharmonic's performance high marks.

LEE: You've seen the conductor, I mean, the (unintelligible). He told at the start that this is just a start. And I hope so myself. But it can be done only when my country and the USA, their relationship becomes normal.

KUHN: One of the many foreign guests in the audience was former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry.

Mr. WILLIAM PERRY (Former U.S. Defense Secretary): I'm just delighted with the concert. Music is a universal language. Music is a way of bringing people together. And I think this is a very important, not only a cultural event but a very important, ultimately, important political event as well. I'm very pleased with it.

KUHN: Philharmonic board member Ben Rosen said that U.S. government encouragement helped convinced the philharmonic to accept Pyongyang's invitation.

Mr. BEN ROSEN (Board Member, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Once we heard the state department decided that they're very supportive of it, the board endorsed it not in a formal way but everyone was in favor of doing this.

KUHN: Musically, tonight's concert was an undoubted success. If its political results aren't quite as brilliant, at least its supporters can say it's not out of step with official U.S. policy.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Pyongyang.

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The New York Philharmonic Plays Pyongyang

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

hide captionThe New York Philharmonic was the first major American orchestra to be invited to perform in North Korea.

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

hide captionThe New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater.

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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