Musical diplomacy as New York Phil plays Pyongyang

PYONGYANG Tue Feb 26, 2008 5:54pm EST

1 of 20. Members of the New York Philharmonic wave to the audience after finishing their concert at the Grand Theatre in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, February 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Cold War foes the United States and North Korea enjoyed a rare moment of harmony on Tuesday when the New York Philharmonic played an unprecedented concert in the hermit state.

An audience of North Korea's communist elite gave America's oldest orchestra a standing ovation after a rousing set that took in Dvorak, Gershwin and a Korean folk song. Some of the musicians were so overcome they left the stage in tears.

"Little did we know that we would be thrown into orbit by this stunning, stunning reaction," said Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic's music director.

North Korea's solitary television station broadcast the concert live to a population taught during 60 years of animosity to view all things foreign with deep suspicion -- especially from the United States, officially their darkest enemy.

"We Koreans fully appreciate the performance this evening by the New York Philharmonic, not just as an art performance, but as the good feelings of the ordinary citizens of the United States toward the Korean people," said Pak Chol, the North's counselor of the Korea-Asia Pacific Peace Committee.

The concert was born out of talks last year on ending the impoverished North's nuclear arms program in exchange for aid and the promise of opening doors to the outside world that have been shut due to its defiant behavior.

CULTURAL OVERTURES

The Bush administration in public played down the significance of the concert and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said any future cultural exchanges would depend on North Korea's cooperation on the nuclear issue.

But analysts say Washington sees the visit, the biggest by a U.S. group since the 1950-53 Korean War, as akin to cultural overtures it made to other Cold War foes decades ago and which eventually helped to ease tension.

"When we received this very warm and enthusiastic reception, we felt that indeed, there may be a mission accomplished here," Maazel said. "We may have been instrumental in opening a little door. If it does become seen in retrospect as a historical moment, we will all feel very proud to have been part of it."

More than 2,000 North Koreans attended the invitation-only concert, although leader Kim Jong-il was conspicuously absent.

The crowd, mostly middle-aged men in dark suits and red lapel badges with images of state founder Kim Il-sung, were the elite of the communist capital.

The country's embassy in London said on Tuesday it had also invited Eric Clapton to perform in Pyongyang.

"We have recently sent a letter to Mr. Clapton's agent inviting him to Pyongyang for a concert. And I do think that if he plays a concert in Pyongyang it will be a good opportunity for the Korean people to understand Western music," an embassy spokesman said.

Such a concert would make the British 62-year-old Grammy-winning singer of "Layla" and "Cocaine" the first Western rock star to play Pyongyang. A spokeswoman for Clapton's record label, Warner Music, declined to comment. His agent was not immediately available for comment.

DIPLOMATIC COUP

The New York Philharmonic orchestra opened its performance with both national anthems -- North Korea's first.

"This is first time I have seen the American flag in North Korea," said one of the minders looking after the largest group of foreign journalists to visit the communist state.

The audience, more used to music that praises North Korea's political system and its leadership, listened with rapt attention to the more than 90-minute performance in the packed East Pyongyang Grand Theatre.

During the three-day visit, North Korea has opened its normally tightly shut doors to scores of foreign journalists, allowing them Internet access and international phone lines, unheard of in a country that imprisons people for unauthorized contact with the outside world.

Analysts said North Korea saw the arrival of the orchestra as a diplomatic coup.

Its propaganda machine will almost certainly spin the visit as a mission from the United States to pay tribute to Kim Jong-il, head of the world's first communist dynasty.

The two countries have no diplomatic ties, are technically still at war and have troops staring at each other across the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea for more than half a century.

The music selection was steeped in irony.

Gershwin's "An American in Paris," about a foreigner discovering the "city of lights," was played in a country that does not produce enough electricity to light its homes at night.

Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World," highlights an immigrant's discovery of America's music. The theme may resonate strangely in a country that forbids most of its citizens from leaving and reportedly executes many of those caught escaping.

Energy-starved North Korea lit the streets of Pyongyang for the motorcade of buses carrying some 350 people from the orchestra, its entourage and media covering the event.

It did not cover the sign in the middle of the city that read: "Crush the American imperialist aggressors."

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson and David Storey)

(Take a look at the Reuters Global News Blog for more on the NY Philharmonic's visit:http:/blogs.reuters.com/global/)

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