Musical diplomacy, and tears, in North Korea - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Musical diplomacy, and tears, in North Korea

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Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 12:02 pm | Updated: 10:55 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

PYONGYANG, North Korea - The New York Philharmonic's unprecedented concert could herald warmer ties between North Korea and the West. After three encores, some musicians left the stage in tears as the audience waved fondly.

And more musical diplomacy could be in the works for the isolated communist state: rock guitarist Eric Clapton has been invited to Pyongyang.

Between horn fanfares and the flourishes of a conductor's baton, the U.S. and North Korea found common ground in a concert Tuesday that spanned American and Korean musical traditions.

Whether the feeling lingers after the music will depend on the North's compliance with an international push to rid it of nuclear weapons.

After the New York Philharmonic played the last notes of the folk song "Arirang," the adoring audience stood and applauded enthusiastically, waving to the musicians.

Orchestra members - some moved to tears - paused with their instruments and waved back, an emotional finale to the concert that was the highlight of the Philharmonic's 48-hour visit.

The enraptured crowd drew music director Lorin Maazel and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow out for a final bow after the rest of the ensemble left the flower-adorned stage at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater.

The concert was broadcast live on North Korean TV, meaning it was heard beyond the 2,500 people in the theater. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, one of the world's most reclusive leaders, did not attend; there was no way to know whether he watched.

"We may have been instrumental in opening a little door," Maazel said after the performance.

He dismissed the significance of Kim's absence, saying: "I have yet to see the president of the United States at one of my concerts. Sometimes a statesman is too busy."

Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry attended the performance and called it a "historic moment," remembering how close the countries came to war in 1994 amid a crisis over the North's nuclear program.

"This might just have pushed us over the top" in finding a way beyond past discord, he said after the concert, adding that Washington should reciprocate by inviting North Korean performers to the United States.

"You cannot demonize people when you're sitting there listening to their music. You don't go to war with people unless you demonize them first," Perry said.

North Korea's vice culture minister agreed.

"I can say that through the concert tonight, all the members of the New York Philharmonic opened the hearts of the Korean people," Song Sok Hwan told the orchestra. The concert, he said at a banquet, "serves as an important occasion to open a chapter of mutual understanding between the two countries."

Performing on a stage flanked by the U.S. and North Korean flags, the Philharmonic played the North Korean national anthem, "Patriotic Song," following by "The Star-Spangled Banner." The audience stood respectfully and held their applause until both had been performed.

The Philharmonic then presented Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 - popularly known as the "New World Symphony," written while the Czech composer lived in the United States - followed by George Gershwin's playful, jazz-influenced "An American in Paris."

"Someday a composer may write a work entitled 'Americans in Pyongyang,'" Maazel said in introducing the Gershwin work, drawing warm applause from the audience.

North Koreans in attendance - men in suits and women in colorful traditional Korean dresses - fixed their eyes on the stage. Many wore badges with a portrait of national founder Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader.

Some raised digital cameras to capture the event, an indication of the elite status of the concertgoers in a country with an average salary of just dollars a month.

For one of its three encores, the Philharmonic performed the overture to Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," without a conductor. Maazel yielded the podium to the spirit of the legendary musician with an exhortation of "Maestro, please!" in Korean.

The concert wrapped up with a final encore of "Arirang" - beloved in both the North and South and often used as a reunification anthem at friendly events between the two Koreas.

Jon Deak, associate principal bass player, who performed under Bernstein to celebrate the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, said members of his section had tears in their eyes at the end of the concert, and "I just can't remember that that has happened before."

"I don't think we've ever been moved so deeply," he said.

"I think the concert is just a wonderful gesture for greater understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and the DPRK," said audience member Pak Chol, using the initials for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

The concert was "not only just an art performance" but also embodied the "good feelings of the Americans toward citizens of the DPRK," said Pak, counselor with the North's Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee.

The optimism did not appear to extend to Bush administration officials, who were dismissive over whether the concert could yield better relations without progress in North Korea's nuclear disarmament. Washington is pressing for Pyongyang to declare its past and present nuclear activity, as it has promised to do.

The concert is "not necessarily going to change the behavior of a regime that is not being as forthcoming as we need them to be on their nuclear activities," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

In China, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the North Korean people should have more opportunities to engage with the world.

"It's a society that certainly needs ways to open up ... It's a long way from playing that concert to changing the nature of the politics of North Korea, but I think it's a good thing," she said.

Ahead of the performance, Maazel noted the orchestra has been a force for change in the past, citing its 1959 performance in the Soviet Union under Bernstein's baton.

"The Soviets didn't realize that it was a two-edged sword, because by doing so they allowed people from outside the country to interact with their own people, and to have an influence," he said. "It was so long lasting that eventually the people in power found themselves out of power."

Asked if he thought the same could happen in North Korea, he said: "There are no parallels in history; there are similarities."

On the streets of Pyongyang, North Koreans said they were aware of the orchestra's visit.

Ri Myong Sop, an electrical engineering student, repeated the country's official line that the United States started the Korean War, which ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty.

"At present, if the United States takes the decision of a more encouraging policy toward the North then we can embrace the United States," he said through one of the government-provided translators accompanying all journalists covering the trip.

After the Philharmonic, a rock concert could be next for North Korea.

Officials at North Korea's embassy in London confirmed Tuesday that they had invited British guitarist Eric Clapton to play in Pyongyang. He would be the first Western rock star to perform in the country.

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