Symphonic diplomacy with North Korea | Inquirer Opinion
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Symphonic diplomacy with North Korea

In February 2008 I followed with bated breath the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s musical voyage to the Hermit Kingdom, aka North Korea, which then US President George W. Bush called “The Axis of Evil.” Being a lover of classical music, I couldn’t wait to find out what the concert’s repertoire would be, what great symphonic work would be performed.

Other questions in my mind then: How will this orchestra from the United States—among the world’s best—be received? Will music bridge the divide? Will there be locals playing? I was thinking of a North Korean Lang Lang.


That was five years ago when North Korea’s strongman Kim Jung Il was still alive and the then heir to his despotic rule, Kim Jung-un, was not yet on the scene. Now he is, this 28-year-old-or-so “Dear Leader III” who threatens to push the Armageddon button if anyone so much as cross his imagined boundaries.

The NY Philharmonic’s 2008 performance is still on YouTube for music lovers to watch and be awed that something like that ever happened. That is, given North Korea’s current bellicose stance against its perceived enemies—the United States, South Korea, Japan and their allies.


With North Korea’s recent threatening posturings of the nuclear kind, I cannot help but recall those symphonic moments. As in, where have all the grace notes gone?

I revisited the articles that were written about that event via the Internet.

In August 2007 the NY Philharmonic announced that Pyongyang, via its Ministry of Culture, had sent an invitation. Orchestra officials and some US officials flew to North Korea and looked at concert halls, discussed broadcast issues, the presence of the international press and logistical matters. The invitation was formally accepted and announced in December 2007.

The NY Philharmonic’s visit would be the first major cultural one since the Korean War in the 1950s. More than 300 foreigners were allowed into North Korea for the February 2008 performance. Foreign journalists were allowed unrestricted communication.

But this was not the first “orchestral diplomacy” between the United States and a hostile counterpart. The Philadelphia Orchestra performed in China in 1973 and the Boston Symphony performed in the Soviet Union in 1956, followed by the NY Philharmonic in 1959.

On the NY Philharmonic’s concertizing in North Korea, the culture minister was quoted as saying: “We hope this will be a big step toward increased bilateral cultural exchange between our two countries.” While the White House press secretary said: “I think at the end of the day, we consider this concert to be a concert, and it’s not a diplomatic, you know, coup.”

Among the orchestra players were Korean-Americans. Performed at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, with Lorin Maazel conducting, were the US and North Korean national anthems, followed by Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9” (“New World Symphony”) and Gershwin’s jazzy “An American in Paris.” Among the encore pieces were Bizet’s “Second L’Arlesienne’s Suite,” Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” and lastly, a moving arrangement of the beloved Korean folk song “Arirang.”


(Dvorak’s “New World” is a favorite of mine. I had attended a live performance of this great work when I was barely out of my teens and I got swept away. The soul-stirring second movement is playing now on YouTube, while I’m writing this, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.)

While “Arirang” was being played, the audience was so still, the North Korean biggies’ faces were unmoving, their emotions in check. No hankies being pulled out. Kim Jong Il was not present.

South and North Korea can both claim “Arirang” (the word means beautiful dear) and I wonder why there can’t be an “Arirang diplomacy” between the two countries—one democratic, the other repressive socialist-despotic—that used to be one.

There’s something about music.

Some years ago, I watched “The Ninth,” a documentary by Pierre-Henry Salfati on Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” whose fourth and last movement is popularly known as “Ode to Joy.” (I wrote a review of it—“The Power of ‘The Ninth’,” Inquirer, 7/14/07.)

As a musical composition, “The Ninth” has been analyzed and deconstructed so often that it has been likened to the Mona Lisa smile. But Salfati’s docu steps over the flats and the sharps and moves on a different plane.

Pacifists, fascists, religious, communists, Nazis, romantics, tyrants, humanists, revolutionaries, despots, freedom fighters—they all had felt inspired by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” (I wish I could add terrorists.) What is it about this piece that movements and leaders of divergent beliefs and ideologies have claimed it to be the anthem that embodies their quest?

The Who’s Who in world history have indeed harkened to the strains of Beethoven’s opus and there are film clips to prove this. There is awesome footage from the Berlin Olympics with Hitler present and Jesse Owens winning the gold. And yes, Hitler’s suicide was announced over the radio with “Ode” as background music. There are film clips to prove these.

Lenin had considered “Ode” as the working masses’ anthem, and there is footage showing him with the music playing. He later decided on the “Internationale.”

Popes, too, basked in “Ode to Joy.” Japanese soldiers prepared for war with “Ode” playing.

“Ode to Joy” was not meant to be an anthem for war but a hymn of freedom. And until today, it is being played everywhere in different occasions.

Music can bridge distances, clashing ideologies and divergent beliefs. Music lovers, world leaders, despots and tyrants put their guard down while the music’s playing. Alas, but only while the music’s playing. And I don’t know about terrorists.

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