Bassist Reflects on Taking Music to North Korea

Jon Deak, a bass player with the New York Philharmonic, performed in North Korea last week. Among the highlights was the performance of a 12-year-old composer's work. Deak tells Melissa Block about his experience.

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(Soundbite of song "Arirang")

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Last week, in Pyongyang, as the New York Philharmonic played the first notes of its finale, the North Korean audience began to murmur "Arirang." It's a song most all Koreans know, North and South.

(Soundbite of song "Arirang")

BLOCK: Jon Deak was on that stage. He's associate principal bass player for the philharmonic. He also directs the Very Young Composers Program, and he brought with him to Pyongyang music written by a 12-year-old New Yorker named Farah Taslima.

Jon Deak talks with me today about his experiences in North Korea. He says the performance of "Arirang" was something almost metaphysical.

Mr. JON DEAK (Associate Principal Bass Player, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): We had gone through the program, and the audience is very appreciative. They were very polite. And suddenly, there was the Arirang, which depicts in its text, a man and a woman who are torn apart by circumstances beyond their control. And the obvious symbolism for the North and South Koreans is unmistakable. And it caught us in the orchestra by surprise, and perhaps the people in the audience.

(Soundbite of song "Arirang")

Mr. DEAK: We know that everyone was coached and they are very controlled in that country, of course, beyond belief. But, here, we were in a real moment where something undoubtedly escaped control.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: And you can feel that on stage.

Mr. DEAK: Absolutely. I mean, I'm - okay, I'm an artist. I mean, I know when somebody is looking at me and talking to me, or whether they're talking at me. And likewise, I can feel when an audience is being polite, being told to be enthusiastic, and when something real is going on. And I'd bet my money on that.

BLOCK: How did it affect you as you felt that emotion coming from the audience?

Mr. DEAK: At first, it was a kind of gradual dawning on some of us, I must say. When I saw a woman's face and it looked like she was about to cry, then I started to cry myself and several of my colleagues. We had already left the stage, by the way. And then, this kind of outpouring was like the audience is catching their breaths, and wait a minute, don't leave.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DEAK: And that's the strong thing that I got from them. And I felt exactly the same thing. Wait, is this - this is too quick. We can't just get on the airplane and go now. Something profound has happened here.

BLOCK: You did have a chance the next day to play with some North Korean musicians, and I'm really curious to hear what that was like and if there was any communication, beyond musical communication, any verbal communication between you two.

Mr. DEAK: Yes. Glenn Dicterow, the concert master, and Cynthia Phelps, Carter Brey and Lisa Kim, formed a quartet, and they were slated to have what we thought was just a kind of informal rehearsal as it were of the "Mendelssohn Octet" with four North Korean musicians. And Glenn and I were kind of shocked when we reached the Moranbong Theater. And it is a formal concert setting, I mean, like four to 500 North Koreans were sitting in the chairs, absolutely formally dressed.

And in short, they read through the first movement of the Mendelssohn. And rather than rehearse, they went on and played beautifully, the entire "Mendelssohn Octet." And then, I had said to Glenn, look, we've been told time and time and time again not to surprise the North Koreans. They like to go by the book. As a matter of fact, you know, I had requested would it be possible to play an American child's original composition. And I felt kind of, maybe this is not the right atmosphere, because it's so official. I mean, I don't want to mess things up. But look what I did. I had extra copies of Farah Taslima's piece.

And I handed them out at that moment to the North Koreans…

BLOCK: They were sight reading(ph).

Mr. DEAK: Absolutely. In short, they read the piece beautifully. I told the audience, and my translator agreed to translate. He said, but this is not on the program. But then he readily agreed and quite smilingly and warmly, warmly translated my remarks, which were to say that this is a gift from an American child's heart to the children of your country. Although it's a humble gift, this is a gift that's perhaps more precious than gold or diamonds. And the guy translated. The audience seemed to understand that right away. And it was a magical moment.

BLOCK: And now that you're back in the States?

Mr. DEAK: The trip is still resonating and I'm still thinking it out. I can't -I'll tell you, honestly, I can not put some of these contradictions together. What good did we do? Obviously, we didn't do anything badly. I think the joy on the people's faces and on our faces were - was real and that was - that's the impression that's going to be left to everybody.

This was not a political, overtly political event, and therefore we could kind of explode some of that iron steel rigidity that undoubtedly existed in relationships between these two countries.

BLOCK: Well, Jon Deak, welcome home and thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. DEAK: You're welcome. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Jon Deak is associate principal bassist for the New York Philharmonic. He also works with young composers, and he brought 12-year-old Farah Taslima's piece "Serenity Unleashed" to North Korea. He told me that a North Korean violist who played that piece asked to keep a copy of the sheet music.

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