N.Y. Philharmonic Primed to Perform For North Koreans

Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in Beijing. The orchestra is set to play a landmark and controversial concert in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic in Beijing. The orchestra is set to play a landmark and controversial concert in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (By David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 25, 2008

BEIJING, Feb. 25 -- Orchestral diplomacy premiers this week in North Korea, as the New York Philharmonic flies into the capital, Pyongyang, for a controversial concert in a Stalinist state that human rights groups call the world's largest prison camp.

The 130-member orchestra is scheduled to arrive Monday and perform Tuesday night before an audience of high-ranking North Korean officials. Eighty journalists will accompany the musicians to a country that is almost always closed to the outside world.

The performance is scheduled to be broadcast live on North Korean state television. For North Koreans, watching an American orchestra perform in their own country will be unprecedented -- and politically dissonant. State-controlled media have demonized the United States since the Korean War.

The audience Tuesday night may or may not include Kim Jong Il, who controls almost everything of consequence in North Korea. A fan of movies and South Korean soap operas, he is not known to be an aficionado of classical music.

The official Korean Central News Agency explained last week that music "of revolution and struggle" is closest to Kim's heart, mentioning as examples "My Song in Trench," "Our Leader Will Always Be with Us" and "On the Road to Decisive Battle."

The New York Philharmonic's program for Tuesday includes George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin."

"The Star-Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem are also on the program, which will be shown on public television in New York on Tuesday and two days later on PBS.

Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the orchestra, said the journey to Pyongyang "is a manifestation of the power of music to unite people."

The visit has received enthusiastic backing -- and diplomatic and logistical assistance -- from the Bush administration.

It comes at a time of delay and frustration in the long attempt by the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea exploded a nuclear device in October 2006 but agreed last fall to disable and disclose all its nuclear weapons in return for energy aid and the lifting of diplomatic sanctions.

That deal, though, has gone sour. The Kim government has delayed the disabling of its reactor at Yongbyon in protest of what it calls the failure of the United States and other countries to fulfill their commitments.

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