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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This morning, the New York Philharmonic confirmed plans to perform in Pyongyang, North Korea in late February. The orchestra then goes on to play in the capital of South Korea, Seoul. The State Department hails the agreement as a symbol of warming or at least less frigid relations between the United States and the country President Bush once included as part of the axis of evil. Among the orchestra's conditions for the trip was a promise that they could play "The Star-Spangled Banner" and that the concert be broadcast so anybody in North Korea can hear it.

Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic joins us in a moment. If you want to talk to him about the hows and whys of the visit to North Korea, 800-989-8255. E-mail: talk@npr.org. Zarin Mehta is with us by phone from New York, and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. ZARIN MEHTA (President and Executive Director, New York Philharmonic): Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

CONAN: And whose idea was this?

Mr. MEHTA: We're not quite sure but it came out of conversations between the State Department and their foreign ministry as a possible good sign of the relations between the two countries and after that we received an official invitation from the ministry of culture. And when we received it, we went to the State Department and said what is this all about. And so, they said, well, I think it'd be a good idea if you could go.

CONAN: So then you went on to do a preliminary visit…

Mr. MEHTA: Yeah. We had meetings here to see whether it would work and when we could do it, and then, yeah - and then we went to see them.

CONAN: And I understand - well, obviously a lot of things had to be arranged, but among them, the orchestra set some conditions for the trip.

Mr. MEHTA: Well, in the introduction you said that I set a condition about the national anthem, that wasn't a condition. That was purely a statement that that's what we would do and it was done on the basis that we will determine the program we pick - that's how we normally do tours - and it would not be any different in Pyongyang. And I have to say that the North Korean concert people and foreign office people that we met were extremely accommodating in everything we wanted and how we wanted to do things.

CONAN: I understood that the idea of a broadcast to the entire country though was also a fundamental part of the trip.

Mr. MEHTA: Well, it was a very strong suggestion from our staff that it would be a good idea.

CONAN: And in addition, of course, to playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," do you plan to play the North Korean anthem?

Mr. MEHTA: Absolutely. Yes.

CONAN: And what does that go like?

Mr. MEHTA: I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEHTA: We brought the music back but I haven't heard it yet.

CONAN: And what else is going to be on the program, do you know?

Mr. MEHTA: The "New World Symphony" of Dvorak, which is - I guess it has a good title apart from being great music and it is part of our history because we give the world premier of it in 1893. And then we will play "An American in Paris" of Gershwin.

CONAN: Well, any North Korean music, other than the anthem, be on the program?

Mr. MEHTA: No.

CONAN: No. Does North Korea - doesn't have a rich tradition of classical music?

Mr. MEHTA: Well, it does have a - it has a number of orchestras, there's famous composer who has passed away called Isang Yun, with the Isang Yun Orchestra in Pyongyang. His work has been played by many orchestras in the West. They have a conservatory that is very serious. I can't say that I heard anything, but we're only there for four days.

CONAN: And you will, in addition to performing this concert, be involved in master classes, the sort of thing you normally do on a foreign…

Mr. MEHTA: Yes. That's what we proposed. In fact, a week before in Shanghai, we are doing master classes. We're going to conduct the youth - Lorin Maazel a youth orchestra for television. We're doing a youth concert in Hong Kong 10 days before. We do those things on tours regularly.

CONAN: And I know you were speaking to this U.S. State Department, did you consult with the South Korean government at all?

Mr. MEHTA: No. There was no reason to.

CONAN: You are, though, planning to perform in Seoul just not that…

Mr. MEHTA: Yeah. The concert in Seoul has not anything to do with the government going to play in any country. We just play with local presenters in local concert halls.

CONAN: For the most part, news of this trip has been hailed by human rights organizations and others who think that any exposure of North Koreans to worldwide culture is a good thing. There has been criticism though.

Terry Teachout, an arts critic writing in The Wall Street Journal, wrote you would be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime. What concerns, if any, did you have about visiting North Korea?

Mr. MEHTA: None at all.

CONAN: It's just that?

Mr. MEHTA: That's it.

CONAN: Did you look at their - their human rights record was not…

Mr. MEHTA: But of course. I mean, look, we all know that. But if you don't have dialogue, if you don't change then they're not going to change. And to put sanctions and ignore people like that has not worked. And this is why Ambassador Hill in the last year has been talking to them and negotiating with them, and he's broken down the barriers. I think it's remarkable what he's done. And the government is now - the North Korean government is now tearing down their nuclear facilities as we are told and as it's been in the press. That's what I think progress is. To have a close mind, as Mr. Teachout is suggesting, I don't think is a good idea.

CONAN: Let's get a listener involved in the conversation. Glenn(ph) is calling us, Glenn in Columbus, Ohio.

GLENN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for talking the call. It's an honor to speak to you, sir.

Mr. MEHTA: Thank you.

GLENN: I - perhaps it would have been too heavy-handed, but did you consider playing Shostakovich's "Fifth Symphony"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEHTA: We had a lot of fun with maybe the "Leningrad Symphony" talking about it. No, we didn't want to make political statements with what we were playing. I thought we should play some American music. We went over a number of pieces. We chose the Gershwin because it is fun and it's an extraordinary piece of music. I explained why we chose the "New World Symphony." No, we didn't think about Shostakovich's Fifth, although it's very much in the repertoire of the orchestra and Maazel.

GLENN: Well, that's the program you chose and it sounds wonderful. I wish I could be there.

Mr. MEHTA: Thank you. Well it - hopefully it will be broadcast. We are pretty certain it will be telecast in most parts of the world. Unfortunately, I have to say it's very difficult to get broadcast of classical music concerts in this country.

CONAN: That's an - no argument there. Do you know if the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il - does he plan to attend?

Mr. MEHTA: I have no idea. We will certainly expect him to be there, but that's a decision that they will make. I couldn't deliver him anymore than I could deliver President Bush.

CONAN: Let's get Steve(ph) on the phone. Steve is with us from Mesa, Arizona.

STEVE (Caller): Thank you. Wonderful to have Mr. Mehta. Zarin, may I ask you, isn't there an increased importance on the role of orchestras as ambassadors for peace? And I'm thinking especially of Daniel Barenboim West-East Divan Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti's Orchestra for Peace that gathers every couple of years. Doesn't the New York Philharmonic fit into that great tradition?

Mr. MEHTA: Yes it does. And we have been doing things like this for a long time. You know, we did a memorial concert six days after 9/11. We did the groundbreaking in New York. We played for President Lincoln's funeral. We did a concert in 1959 in Moscow.

STEVE: Yes.

Mr. MEHTA: I said on an interview earlier that I remember reading - and I don't know much of the facts, but it came back to me that we had done a concert on a tour in South America with Leonard Bernstein in the late '50s, where at that time when America's stock in Chile was not the best. And I think Vice President Nixon at that time was very severely criticized of things. And Lenny arrived with the New York Philharmonic and there was throwing flowers in the air.

So I think the message of orchestras around the world at troubled times is well known. And I think that's - what we can only do is to play our music and let the politicians try and sort things out after that.

STEVE: Yes, thank you so much. And Neal, thank you for this great interview.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve.

I was reading also that Leonard Bernstein performed in Berlin at a moment of great tension in that city, but also prayed for peace from the lectern and read a Jewish prayer.

Mr. MEHTA: Yes. That is correct. And when he did of the Beethoven Ninth of the "Ode to Joy" he changed the words of joy to freedom.

CONAN: Joy to freedom. Zarin Mehta, thanks very much for being with us today. And we wish you the best of luck on your trip. Will you - after you comeback, will you join us again and tell us how it went?

Mr. MEHTA: I'd be very happy to.

CONAN: All right. Good luck.

Mr. MEHTA: Thank you.

CONAN: Zarin Mehta is the president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic. And he joined us by phone today from New York City. The New York Philharmonic plans to perform in Pyongyang, North Korea in late February.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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