Sadanand Menon’s critique of the Zubin Mehta concert in Srinagar (Zubin Mehta and the Unequal Music, the Hindu September 18, 2013) reminds me of another concert that evoked a great deal of controversy. This was the performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on a snowy February evening in 2008 in Pyongyang. There was consternation and criticism in many world capitals about the decision of the Philharmonic to travel to North Korea. It was later revealed that American diplomat Christopher Hill, who was then leading the six-party negotiations to contain North Korea’s nuclear programme, played a role in facilitating this unprecedented visit.
The arrival of the three hundred member orchestra in Pyongyang for a 48 hour visit was covered extensively in the world media. Ayelet Heller has captured the experience of this group in a riveting documentary for German television. Starting with disbelief and apprehension as cell phones were confiscated on landing at the airport, the group gets to gradually engage with people living behind barriers the like of which have few parallels in the world.
Music did make connections between people of two countries still technically at war. Invited to conduct the State Orchestra of North Korea, Lorin Maazel, Music Director of the Philharmonic, discovered “a group of about eighty men in black suits, with only two women harpists, set against the wall” who were able to produce “music that was astonishing”.
There was an occasion to perform the Mendelsohn Quartet played by four North Korean musicians and four from the Philharmonic who had never seen each other till the day of their performance. “We felt that they were really receptive to the kind of musical phrasing we were all making, to the kind of rhythmic intensity that we were trying to build together” said Cynthia Phelp, Principal Viola. “You absolutely do not need words, as music is a language completely unto itself”.
The Philharmonic performed a short piece by a New York school girl, Farah Taslima, called “Serenity” dedicated to the children of North Korea. Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and others conducted master classes for talented young Korean musicians.
The tension was palpable when the concert opened on the evening of 26 February at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre to the national anthems of both countries played by the Philharmonic. Lorin Maazel’s words introducing Gershwin’s An American in Paris, “Someday a composer may write a work entitled ‘Americans in Pyongyang’ ” made it to headlines in over a hundred newspapers around the world. The emotional high point of the concert was when “Arirang” a folk song beloved of Koreans in both the North and the South was played.
The concert was aired live throughout the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea over state television and radio in a very rare occurrence. Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonic received a five-minute standing ovation and in an unrehearsed and emotional connection, the audience and the members of the orchestra started waving to each other as they walked away. No one present that day will forget the moment when the walls of separation and distrust appeared to fade for a brief moment.
The Pyongyang concert has not been useful for defusing security and political tensions - much like the annual Chennai concerts or the Dover Lane music festivals have had no impact on crime or political rivalry, as Sadanand Menon points out. But to deny that it had an enduring impact in penetrating barriers that separate people and creating mutual respect and understanding would be unfair.
Gopalan Balagopal was Head of UNICEF’s office in Pyongyang when the concert took place. He can be reached at email@example.com