Archive for Wednesday, February 27, 2008

NY Philharmonic concert brings tears, 3 encores in North Korea

February 27, 2008

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Members of the New York Philharmonic perform Tuesday next to a North Korean flag on stage in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Members of the New York Philharmonic perform Tuesday next to a North Korean flag on stage in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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

Between horn fanfares and the flourishes of the 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 Dvorak's "New World Symphony," written while the Czech composer lived in the United States - followed by 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.

After the Philharmonic, a rock concert could be in the works - officials at North Korea's embassy in London confirmed Tuesday they had invited British guitarist Eric Clapton to play in Pyongyang.

However, Clapton spokeswoman Kristen Foster said there is no agreement for him to perform in North Korea.

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