NEW YORK (Billboard) - The New York Philharmonic will dive
into uncharted waters in February, when the ensemble is
scheduled to give a concert in North Korea's capital city of
Pyongyang. This marks the first major visit by American artists
to isolationist North Korea.
The February 26 concert will feature Gershwin's "An
American in Paris"; Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New
World" (inspired by the composer's travels through the United
States); and Wagner's Prelude to Act 3 of the opera
"Lohengrin," as well as the American and North Korean national
anthems. A second concert will take place in Seoul two nights
later that will include Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
New York Philharmonic president/executive director Zarin
Mehta, chairman Paul Guenther and U.N. North Korean ambassador
Pak Gil Yon repeatedly emphasized the cultural nature of the
visit, refusing to answer any political questions lobbed at
them at a recent press conference.
"We're there to help open the country," Mehta told
Billboard. "We're going there to create some joy."
Nevertheless, the Philharmonic's decision created controversy
among some orchestra musicians and classical music industry
experts who assert that the trip will lend legitimacy to the
After consulting with the U.S. State Department and a
preliminary trip by orchestra officials to Pyongyang in
October, the Philharmonic agreed to accept the unprecedented
invitation from the North Korean government. (Along with the
concert, the orchestra plans to invite local musicians to one
of its rehearsals, and hold master classes for student
The Phil's decision to make the trip comes at a
particularly charged moment in relations between the two
nations. North Korea is one of the three countries that
President Bush famously dubbed "the axis of evil," and media
reports of late say that North Korea may have helped Syria
begin work on a nuclear reactor.
Nonetheless, the official Philharmonic acceptance came less
than a week after Bush sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim
Jong-Il that offered normalized relations if the country fully
disclosed its nuclear activities and got rid of its arsenal.
The Philharmonic successfully lobbied for the concert to be
moved from the originally proposed 300-seat hall to a
1,200-seat venue, but as of now, it is unclear who the audience
will be. According to regional experts, simply living in
Pyongyang is a privilege extended only to North Korea's
political elite, and there's no evidence of cultural events in
the country beyond those that are organized by the regime.
This is not the first time that an American orchestra has
been part of an overture toward better relations between
politically hostile nations. The Boston Symphony Orchestra
traveled to the Soviet Union in 1956, and the Philadelphia
Orchestra journeyed to China in 1973.
The U.S. State Department has offered help and
encouragement "at every step" of this venture, Mehta said. (In
fact, the Philharmonic first turned to the State Department to
authenticate the North Korean invitation, which arrived by
"We have done all this with the guidance of the State
Department," Mehta said. "We didn't make a move until we were
told that this trip would be very beneficial to U.S.-North