Musical diplomacy as NY Phil plays Pyongyang

Cold War foes the United States and North Korea enjoyed a rare moment of harmony on Tuesday when the New York Philharmonic played an unprecedented concert in the hermit state.

An audience of North Korea’s communist elite gave America’s oldest orchestra a standing ovation after a rousing set that took in Dvorak, Gershwin and a Korean folk song. Some of the musicians were so overcome they left the stage in tears.

”Little did we know that we would be thrown into orbit by this stunning, stunning reaction,” said Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s music director.

North Korea’s solitary television station broadcast the whole concert live to a population taught during 60 years of animosity to view all things foreign with deep suspicion — especially if they come from the United States, officially their darkest enemy.

”We Koreans fully appreciate the performance this evening by the New York Philharmonic, not just as an art performance, but as the good feelings of the ordinary citizens of the United States toward the Korean people,” said Pak Chol, the North’s counsellor of the Korea-Asia Pacific Peace Committee.

The concert was born out of talks last year on ending the impoverished North’s nuclear arms programme in exchange for aid and the promise of opening doors to the outside world that have been shut due it its defiant behavior .

Cultural overtures

The Bush administration in public played down the significance of the concert and White House spokesperson Dana Perino said any future such cultural exchanges would depend on North Korea’s cooperation on the nuclear issue.

But analysts say Washington sees the visit, the biggest by a US group since the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, as akin to cultural overtures it made to other Cold War foes decades ago and which eventually helped to ease tension.

”When we received this very warm and enthusiastic reception, we felt that indeed, there may be a mission accomplished here,” the Philharmonic’s Maazel said.

”We may have been instrumental in opening a little door. If it does become seen in retrospect as a historical moment, we will all have feel very proud to have been part of it.”

More than 2 000 North Koreans attended the invitation-only concert, although leader Kim Jong-il was conspicuously absent.

The crowd, mostly middle-aged men in dark suits and red lapel badges with images of state founder Kim Il-sung, were the elite of the communist capital.

But any sign of the decades of enmity was kept well out of sight as the orchestra opened the performance with both national anthems — North Korea’s first.

”This is first time I have seen the American flag in North Korea,” said one of the minders looking after the largest group of foreign journalists to ever visit the communist state.

The audience, more used to music that praises North Korea’s political system and its dynastic leadership, listened with rapt attention to the more than 90-minute performance in the packed East Pyongyang Grand Theatre.

”It was very good,” Ri Gun, head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American affairs bureau, told reporters after the concert, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said.

Diplomatic coup

During the three-day visit, North Korea has opened its normally tightly shut doors to scores of foreign journalists, allowing them internet access and almost completely unrestricted international phone lines — unheard of in a country that imprisons people for unauthorised contact with the outside world.

Analysts said that North Korea saw the arrival of the orchestra as a diplomatic coup.

Its propaganda machine will almost certainly spin the visit as a mission from the United States to pay tribute to Kim Jong-il, head of the world’s first communist dynasty.

The two countries have no diplomatic ties, are technically still at war and have troops staring each other down across the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea for more than half a century.

The music selection was steeped in irony.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a piece about a foreigner discovering the ”the city of lights”, was played in an impoverished country that does not produce enough electricity to light its homes at night.

Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony NUmber 9 From the New World, highlights an immigrant’s discovery of America’s music. The theme may resonate strangely in a country that forbids most of its citizens from leaving and reportedly executes many of those caught escaping.

Energy-starved North Korea lit the streets of Pyongyang for the motorcade of buses carrying some 350 people from the orchestra, its entourage and media covering the event.

It did not cover the propaganda sign in the middle of the city that read: ”Crush the American imperialist aggressors.” – Reuters

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Jon Herskovitz
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