When the New York Philharmonic was presented with the opportunity to perform a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea in February, we were not quite sure how we felt about it. Some members were concerned about bowing to a repressive regime with a long history of human rights abuses. Others were anxious to go, hoping that our willingness to reach out would be of some help to the plight of the common man in this country of great hardship. Many were not quite sure how much change our trip could enact. I myself have seen cultural diplomacy in action many times and believe it is a very powerful tool. I found it ironic that Condoleeza Rice said, “I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.” The State Department seemed very anxious for us to make the trip when they visited us at Avery Fisher Hall. Cultural diplomacy helped open the doors to China, which I feel enriched our world despite problems in the areas of trade, product safety, and ecology.
One of our concerns was the fact that the average citizen of Pyongyang would not be able to attend the concert, something only to be enjoyed by the highest level of dignitaries. We requested that the North Korean government agree to broadcast our concert nationwide, though we were not even sure that many people outside of Pyongyang actually owned televisions. We also wanted to give chamber music concerts in rural areas and teach master classes at the Pyongyang Conservatory. The rural concerts never materialized, but there was a joint chamber music concert that brought together a string quartet from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea State Symphony Orchestra and a string quartet from the New York Philharmonic for the Mendelssohn Octet. Another collaborative effort was led by our music director, Maestro Lorin Maazel, who conducted the D.P.R.K. State Symphony in a rehearsal on February 27.
Many of us had volunteered to give master classes at the Pyongyang Conservatory of Music. It was a great honor to be chosen to do so, and I looked forward to the opportunity to bond with musical colleagues. The D.P.R.K. government routinely disperses anti-American propaganda in the form of public billboards, tracts, and ideological training. Here was a chance to change the minds of the conditioned North Korean about the spirit of American people one by one.
Accompanied by our translators/“minders” (which the government assigns to foreign visitors in order to “protect” them), we drove through the streets of Pyongyang to the conservatory. These limited excursions were our only chance to observe a little bit of daily life, as we were not allowed to leave our hotel unless officially escorted to a sanctioned activity. While in transit, we saw many people walking home through fields and parks, as there were few automobiles on the streets and the few aging buses and trolleys were packed to the gills. Every few blocks we observed lines of 50 or more people waiting for already packed buses at bus stops. The few traffic lights that existed were not working (electricity was cut off for most of the day, to preserve the fuel supply), so at each large intersection there was a very attractive and stylishly dressed young woman directing the almost non-existent traffic.
When we arrived at the conservatory, there were many officials to greet us and many members of the press waiting to photograph and interview us. Built in 2005, the Pyongyang Conservatory is an attractive, airy building equipped with traditional Korean and western instruments. Waiting for me in a very small studio (about the size of an average Juilliard practice room) were three bassoon students and their professor. One of the first things I noticed upon entering the room was two framed photographs: one of President Kim Jong-Il and one of his father, the former president, Kim Il Sung. Only two of the three boys would have time to play, as the class would only be an hour long. The first young man began to play the Mozart Concerto, K. 191, with a beautiful, Viennese-style sound, though not terribly well coordinated with the accompanist. Through the interpreter, I discovered that neither student had actually rehearsed with her—nor, in fact had they ever played their concertos with an accompanist before—so I spent much of the time coaching him in ensemble playing. The next student played the Weber Concerto, Op. 75, very competently, and with good pitch as well. It seems that orchestral players in North Korea are trained in the Viennese style, since many students are sent there to further their education. The three young men were between 19 and 20 and were at a level comparable to our sophomore students at Juilliard. After quick goodbyes, I was scooted away for photos and interviews by North and South Korean newspapers.
The next day we were to travel to Seoul in the afternoon, but in the morning we were offered the opportunity to watch a performance at the Children’s Palace. Since we were not allowed to roam the streets of Pyongyang, even with one of our “minders,” most of us seized every opportunity to experience what we could of life in the city. The performance consisted of about nine short acts, each featuring a different style of music and dance. Most of the musicians and dancers seemed between 7 and 16 years old. Their discipline and precision was impressive; artistic education and achievement is clearly valued in this society, probably because they really have little else with which to represent themselves. However, I am aware that their art is still predominantly facilitated by the D.P.R.K. to promote their party line. I believe that once they are allowed to participate in the global economy, that will change.
All in all, the experience for the vast majority of both the New York Philharmonic members and our new North Koreans friends was an extremely emotional one. Tears were shed on both sides of the podium after our historical concert. Deep feelings of connection were established between the New York Philharmonic and our audience in the D.P.R.K. I feel privileged to have taken part in an important historical event that has the potential to change the course of diplomatic relations between our country and North Korea. I feel as though we participated in one of the most uplifting instances of art in American history, using the gift of music—as well as the gift of freedom our country has granted us—showing it to a nation of people who would otherwise never have seen such a display. This was a first step, and we cannot expect too much right away, but I would love to see our new colleagues from the D.P.R.K. come and study at our conservatories and experience the everyday opportunities we tend to take for granted.