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N.Y. orchestra strikes high note in N. Korea

Philharmonic concert receives warm applause

Lorin Maazel directed the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang. The concert included a performance of George Gershwin's 'An American in Paris' and Korea's folk anthem 'Arirang.' Lorin Maazel directed the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang. The concert included a performance of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Korea's folk anthem "Arirang." (David Guttenfelder/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Blaine Harden
Washington Post / February 27, 2008

PYONGYANG, North Korea - American symphonic diplomacy won bravos and standing ovations here yesterday, as the New York Philharmonic performed a concert without precedent in this shuttered Stalinist state that has long considered the United States as its chief enemy.

Swinging from a joyous and rollicking rendition of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" to a moving performance of Korea's most-beloved folk anthem "Arirang," the concert seemed to delight a mostly male, standing-room-only audience of North Koreans, nearly all of whom were wearing lapel pins bearing the face of their leader, Kim Jong Il, or his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's modern founder.

Broadcast live on national television and radio, the concert opened with the national anthems of both countries, the audience of ranking Communist Party members and supporters standing through their own "Patriotic Song" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Although Kim did not attend the performance, security leading up to the concert hall was light, a telltale sign, it was characterized as a musical and diplomatic triumph by Lorin Maazel, musical director of the orchestra.

"Little could we know that we would be drawn into orbit by this stunning reaction," Maazel told reporters after the concert. "I think it is going to do a great deal for Korean-US relations. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door."

Asked if he was disappointed that Kim had not attended the concert, Maazel snapped back: "I have yet to see the president of the United States at one of my concerts. Sometimes politicians are too busy."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a one-day visit to Beijing, said the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang was a good thing but cautioned against trying to portray it as a diplomatic breakthrough. "North Korea needs ways to open up," she said. "This is positive. But it's a long way from changing the situation of North Korea," isolated from the West for decades and in the midst of a dispute over its development of nuclear weapons technology.

For the New York Philharmonic, the formalities for entering this sealed police state began on Monday with the surrender of all mobile phones.

On an afternoon darkened by fog and blanketed with late-winter snow, the 130-member orchestra arrived Monday by jumbo jet from Beijing to begin a 48-hour musical diplomacy tour, despite criticism from human rights groups .

Minutes after he stepped onto the tarmac at Pyongyang's airport, Maazel 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."

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