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 totalitarian regime.
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 players.)
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 fax.)
“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 Korea relations.”