The N.Y. Philharmonic in North Korea: Symbology and the Music

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Today, the New York Philharmonic is playing a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. This is an unprecedented event, and the media are making sure that the world knows it. In the weeks since the impending concert was announced in December, we have been treated to the spectacle of music pundits enjoying a chance to sound off on politics, with indignant authority, strong opinions and very little actual knowledge.

On one side of the debate are those who aver that the New York Philharmonic should not be dignifying the Kim Jong Il administration with its presence. The other side maintains that this North Korea performance, which will be broadcast nationally on North Korean television and in this country by PBS, is an act of cultural diplomacy, proving that music is a universal language with the ability to spread peace and harmony (think Leonard Bernstein going to Moscow with the Philharmonic in 1959).

The problem with this argument is that it partakes of the idea that we, the noble West, are going to bring the good things of classical music to the benighted North Koreans. This attitude is all too familiar in classical music in general: It is the same well-meaning approach that gives so many outreach programs their tinge of benevolent didacticism, the tone of a conductor speaking cheerfully on a podium to educate his or her audience.

And another problem with this argument is that, like many opinions, it is not informed by facts. For there is evidence that North Korea does actually have a considerable music life.

"In the State Symphony of North Korea, they do Tchaikovsky from memory," says Suzannah Clarke, a British opera singer who has performed frequently in North Korea. She adds, "The Philharmonic could probably learn a thing or two."

Clarke has been to North Korea five or six times. Her first trip was something of a fluke -- her home town of Middlesbrough, in Yorkshire, has had ties to North Korea ever since the North Korean soccer team played Italy there, and won, in the 1966 World Cup. But it has turned into an ongoing relationship. She is something of a star in Pyongyang: She has appeared on North Korea's national television, and she is planning a concert tour of the State Symphony of North Korea to London and Middlesbrough in September. She hopes to raise enough money for an additional performance in the United States.

Asia is a hotbed of Western classical music. This passion has evidently not bypassed North Korea. Much of the West harbors images of North Koreans as either wealthy soldiers or starving peasants. But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

According to Mark Stringer, the conductor who leads the class, the North Korean government decides, every few years, that it is time to train a new crop of elite young conductors. In the early 2000s -- a few years before Stringer took over in 2005 -- the government's choice fell on this Vienna school. There were considerable bureaucratic hurdles to overcome; North Korean representatives insisted on sitting in on auditions, and had a hard time understanding why not all of their handpicked candidates were accepted by the school. But they were also paying attention.

"The next batch," Stringer said, "knew what to expect. They were so prepared they could nail every single bit of our ferociously difficult entrance exam."

The students also do not fulfill anyone's expectations of politically guarded wards of the state. "They have a completely normal experience," Stringer says. "Once they're in the walls of the school, politics disappear. There is no breathing down our necks from the North Korean officials." He describes the students as generally more open, easygoing and funny than their South Korean counterparts.

"Were they to be allowed to stay in the West," he says, "a number of the ones I've seen would have a serious chance of a prominent international career. It's phenomenal what they come to Vienna knowing how to do."

This is not a picture of North Korea that anybody in the United States, even the music press, tends to espouse. Nor would many pundits imagine the scene Stringer describes when North and South Korean students presented a joint concert of their music in December 2006, and both ambassadors were invited. Prepared for tension and hostility, the organizers were shocked when the ambassadors chatted happily together, walked companionably to the reception with their wives, and continued their lively conversation over glasses of beer.

Of course, the New York Philharmonic performance in Pyongyang has tremendous significance. It represents, at least symbolically, the idea that people can speak to each other through music when they fail through language. It is at least a sign of an opening, good or bad.

But this event could easily become so much the stuff of rhetoric that the reality goes unnoticed. That reality will involve the Philharmonic musicians trying to work with some of the promising students. It will involve a concert of American music. And it will probably involve some in the audience listening in uncomprehending pleasure, and others with a sophisticated appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses the orchestra has to offer. Just as they do at home.

In Austria, Stringer said, there is a different view of North Korea. "It's not the axis of evil. It's just a country." And, one might add: It's the music that matters most.

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