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Symphonic Diplomacy, With Odd Overtones
N.Y. Philharmonic Takes 'Bold Step' Into North Korea's Closed State

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

PYONGYANG, North Korea, Feb. 26 -- For the New York Philharmonic, the formalities for entering this sealed police state began with the surrender of all mobile phones.

Stripped of these items, which are illegal in North Korea, members of the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States were required to fill out what may well be the world's strangest customs declaration form. It asks whether a traveler is carrying a "killing device," an "exciter," "artistic works" or "publishing of all kinds."

Monday was a memorably surreal day of meet and greet for the New York Philharmonic and the government of Kim Jong Il.

Kim's Stalinist dictatorship has spent decades vilifying Americans as "imperialist warmongers," but on Tuesday night it will broadcast live on state television a concert by what is arguably the most famous of all American orchestras. The concert will include "The Star-Spangled Banner" and George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

On an afternoon darkened by fog and blanketed with late-winter snow, the 130-member orchestra arrived by jumbo jet from Beijing to begin a 48-hour musical diplomacy tour, despite criticism from human rights groups that North Korea keeps hundreds of thousands of its citizens in labor camps, shoots people who try to escape the country and presided in the 1990s over the starvation of an estimated 2 million people.

Minutes after he stepped onto the tarmac at Pyongyang's airport, Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, was surrounded by the horde of Western journalists traveling with his orchestra and pressed to justify the visit. Critics have described it as a public relations bonanza for Kim's government, which is eager for trade with and aid from the West.

"Obviously, it is a bold step," Maazel said. "But what is the alternative? It would have been a great mistake not to accept this invitation."

North Korea invited the orchestra last August, at a time when its relationship with the United States was gradually improving. That improvement has since stalled, with the North delaying the disabling of a nuclear reactor here, asserting that the United States and other countries have not delivered on promises to provide energy aid and lift diplomatic sanctions.

Still, orchestral diplomacy has forged ahead, with the approval of the Bush administration, whose officials have said the concert would help improve the image of Americans here.

Maazel said that for closed societies such as North Korea, "we are a lifeline to the outside world."

But he played down the political significance of the orchestra's visit. He also seemed purposefully grim through a long evening of appearances with his North Korean hosts.

It would be "presumptuous," Maazel said, to predict any historical importance for the concert. "It may or may not be of significance outside the musical arena," he said.

Maazel and the orchestra were greeted on the tarmac by a North Korean delegation led by a vice minister of culture. Members of the orchestra later boarded buses and began a slow, snowy ride into Pyongyang. En route, they viewed mile after mile of crumbling concrete apartment blocks and streets conspicuously lacking in traffic save for the odd horse-drawn cart.

The monochrome landscape -- gray merging with brown merging with the dirty gray of wet snow -- was striking, orchestra members said, especially after the frenzy of color and commercialism they had witnessed over the weekend in Beijing, where they played two concerts.

"It is very stark and forbidding," said Stanley Drucker, 79, principal clarinetist for the orchestra and a veteran of its world travels since 1948. He was with the orchestra when it went to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1959.

"The Soviet Union then had similarities to what I am seeing here," he said. "But still that was Europe, a place where there were echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. It is a new feel here, very different."

From the bus, spying into the windows of apartments, orchestra members could see portrait after portrait after portrait of Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, who invented the blinkered brand of communism that is practiced here. The elder Kim died in 1994.

The Kim brand has been imprinted on the North Korean population by a relentless, state-managed cult of personality.

It ensures that their photographs have pride of place in apartments across Pyongyang, and it punctuates the capital with gargantuan statues, billboards and palaces that celebrate their accomplishments. These are the best-lighted buildings in town.

Not a single member of the New York Philharmonic declined to come to Pyongyang as a way of protesting human rights abuses in North Korea, according to Eric Latzky, spokesman for the orchestra.

But some of the musicians said they have been reading, wondering and worrying about what it means to perform here.

"You don't want to pay respect to a government that has characterized us as the devil," said Jon Deak, an assistant principal bassist and creative educational adviser who has been with the orchestra since 1969.

"We wouldn't go and play for Hitler, but this is different," he said. "This is a little backwater, a small and isolated country. Whatever light we can shed on this place is only to the good. If you have a problem, it can only fester in isolation."

When the orchestra travels, one of Deak's responsibilities is to recruit local young people to write musical scores, which members of the orchestra then perform with them.

Deak said he had surprising success in Shanghai finding composers, but the North Koreans declined to cooperate. "It just didn't happen," he said. "I don't know why."

On Monday night, the orchestra was bused from its hotel across Pyongyang to a large and brilliantly lighted building called the Mansudae Arts Theater. Its vast lobby was white marble and featured a large faux waterfall.

On red velvet seats, members of the orchestra watched a performance of Korean folk dance, music and song. Most of the performers were young women, remarkable for their identical height, build and beauty. They performed intricate dances with fans, with drums and with large pots on their heads, all the while with identical smiles frozen on their faces.

Later, orchestra members dined ornately at the People's Palace of Culture. "Through our music, through our art, we will be able to express our friendly feelings to North Korean artists and the North Korean people," Maazel said in a toast.

The visitors' second day in North Korea began cold and snowy. Groundskeepers swept snow from the greens and tees at the nine-hole golf course that abuts the hotel where the orchestra is staying.

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