The tour, comprising 164 musicians and including stops in Atlanta; Oxford, Miss.; and New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, was scheduled for February, but plans ground to a halt with the death of Kim Jong Il in December. Further spring dates have been complicated by other geopolitical matters, notably North Korea’s announcement of its intention to launch a missile in honor of the 100th birthday of its late and still-revered Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, also jeopardizing a newly negotiated food-aid deal with the United States. The next tour possibility is in May — pending approval from the U.S. State Department.
Robert Springs, the founder of Global Resource Services and the tour’s initiator, estimated the tour’s total cost at $3 million — if it gets off the ground. “We’ve spent, in the last 15 years, over $35 million in humanitarian aid,” he said. “If something like this [tour] could result in more normal international relations, that would be the tipping point to help solve all these humanitarian problems. I think that’s well worth the price tag.”
Springs has made something of a sideline of North Korean cultural exchanges. He has brought three American bands to North Korea, including the Christian band Casting Crowns, which twice played at the international music festival celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday. This spring, Springs is traveling to North Korea with an all-male chorus called the Sons of Jubal.
“We wanted to bring a group,” he said of the current tour, which has been in the works since 2007, “and it was suggested that we bring this group.” In short: It was North Korea’s idea.
The National Symphony Orchestra of North Korea, whose name also has been translated as the State Symphony of North Korea, is the country’s oldest and most established Western-style orchestra. It bears no relationship to the Unhasu Orchestra, another North Korean ensemble, which traveled to Paris earlier this month to perform in a joint concert with the Radio France Philharmonic under the well-known South Korean conductor Chung Myung Whun — the first time a North Korean orchestra had appeared in Europe, according to a statement from Radio France.
The National Symphony Orchestra, by contrast, was the group that played — briefly — under Lorin Maazel when the New York Philharmonic made its historic (and controversial) visit to Pyongyang in 2008.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” says the New York Philharmonic’s principal violist, Cynthia Phelps, who showed up with three American colleagues for what she thought would be a working rehearsal of one movement of the Mendelssohn Octet with four North Korean musicians, and ended up playing the whole piece in front of an audience. “They were really well trained: good technique, good sound. I think they get a lot of Russian teaching over there.”