ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
It's an announcement that brings back memories of cultural exchanges during the Cold War, when American orchestras went to the Soviet Union and the Bolshoi Ballet came here. The New York Philharmonic says it will travel to North Korea in February to perform a concert of American and American-inspired music.
Here's NPR's Margot Adler.
MARGOT ADLER: There were perhaps a hundred reporters from all over the world and at least 25 camera crews crowded into Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Paul Guenther, the chairman of the New York Philharmonic, said the unusual announcement they were making was in the tradition and history of this oldest orchestra in the United States.
Mr. PAUL GUENTHER (Chairman, New York Philharmonic): And that is the harnessing of the power of music to cross boundaries and to bridge differences. In 1959, Leonard Bernstein, then the orchestra's music director, led the Philharmonic to the Soviet Union in an effort to reach out to people in a society that was then very closed.
ADLER: The orchestra also performed Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" in Berlin just before the wall came down. The Philadelphia Orchestra went to China soon after President Nixon's visit in 1973.
Zarin Mehta, the president and executive director of the Philharmonic said that when they were first approached by North Korea, they were very cautious and had many reservations. They had exploratory conversations with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the Bush administration's main diplomat negotiating with North Korea, and with Pak Kil-yon, the permanent U.N. representative from that country, who spoke at the news conference today.
Mehta said they were left with three questions.
Mr. ZARIN MEHTA (President and Executive Director, New York Philharmonic): Would our government wish us to pursue this invitation? Would a New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang contribute in some way to the growing success of the multination talks? And if so, what conditions would we encounter in Pyongyang?
ADLER: It became clear that the State Department backed this effort. At one point, Paul Guenther even used the phrase they were given a call to serve, although both Guenther and Mehta emphasized they were not pushed to do it. And in the end, they made a musical decision.
In October, they led a seven-person delegation to North Korea, where they explored everything from venues to lighting to getting the instruments there. At one point, they were shown an auditorium with only 300 seats. They refused this and settled on one that accommodated 1500.
The New York Philharmonic will play in the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre on February 26th. The orchestra will play George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and the national anthems of both countries.
Reporters tried unsuccessfully to ask Pak Kil-yon, the North Korean representative, various political questions. Would Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, appear at the concert? Whose music was better in his view, Mozart's or Kim Jong-il? He would only repeat that this event…
Mr. PAK KIL-YON (North Korea's Permanent Representative to the U.N.): Will surely deepen the understanding and friendship between the people and the musicians and the players of the two countries.
ADLER: And when reporters pressed the question of human rights in Korea, Zarin Mehta said, we're not here to comment on that. We're here to open the country.
Mr. MEHTA: We go there to make music. What forms out from that is up to the diplomats to deal with and the government officials. All we can do is show the way that music can unite people. We're going there to create some joy. And hopefully, as the concert is broadcast throughout the world, the joy will spread and see that people all over the world appreciate what we are doing.
ADLER: The trip will be the first significant cultural exchange with North Korea and comes at a time when the Bush administration has signaled that country that relations will improve if disagreements over nuclear issues are solved.
Mehta and Guenther said the orchestra will conduct master classes with Korean students and their rehearsal will be open to the public. They have also gotten an agreement from North Korea for the presence of foreign journalists and a national broadcast.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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