A humanitarian group is working to bring the National Symphony Orchestra of North Korea on a tour of the United States — with the full blessing of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the most repressive countries in the world.
It would be the first time a large performing arts ensemble from North Korea has come to the United States.
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.”
She was also impressed that they played everything from memory.
That may be in part because getting hold of sheet music is a challenge. Classical Movements, the Alexandria-based travel agency specializing in orchestra and chorus tours, which has been making (and canceling) the logistical arrangements for this one, had to obtain parts for a number of American works the orchestra is considering performing in the United States — such as Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” But Neeta Helms, who founded Classical Movements in 1992, found that the North Koreans were hungry even for some pieces that are in the public domain and easy to obtain in the West, such as a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.
Still, the level of play appears to be high. “We have several recordings,” Helms said. “We’re very impressed with the quality.” The CDs will be available for purchase on the Web site that Global Resource Services is setting up for the tour, which launches Thursday (www.dprknsotour.org).
For their U.S. performances, the North Koreans plan to play works by both American and North Korean composers, including a large-scale arrangement of the popular Korean folk song “Arirang.” Also on the program will be a major violin concerto — perhaps the Tchaikovsky — with an American soloist. A number of leading soloists expressed interest in performing with the orchestra, but the uncertainty surrounding the tour’s dates has made it difficult to engage anyone in a field where bookings are usually made years in advance.
The tour poses some notable logistical challenges. It’s hard to find an airplane that is cleared to land in Pyongyang and able to carry both the personnel and the massive amount of equipment such a tour involves; most touring U.S. orchestras send their trunks and instruments in a separate cargo plane. There’s also the difficulty of arranging meals for 164 people, many of whom have had little exposure to other cuisines. Then there are other peculiarities, such as the musicians who will be coming. Although the National Symphony Orchestra of North Korea is in most respects identical to a Western orchestra, it plans to travel with as many as 13 flutists; most Western orchestras travel with no more than three or four.
Whether the North Korean orchestra actually comes, the fact that planning has gotten this far is a clear sign of some movement toward exchange on the part of the government. “We have the names of every musician, their passport numbers, their dates of birth,” says Helms of Classical Movements, which has been working on the tour since October. “They wouldn’t have been issued passports,” she said, had the venture not been “supported by the North Korean government. Normally one would say that their permission would be harder to get, but they’re completely, 100 percent behind it. Obviously, and for justifiable reasons, the U.S. government is being careful about giving final approval.”