Symphony reports from Pyongyang

Symphony reports from Pyongyang

The NY Phil in North Korea

Symphony contributing writer Steve Smith accompanied the New York Philharmonic on its groundbreaking visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here’s the first of his reports, as he and the orchestra arrive in Pyongyang on Monday, February 25. (Click here for photos from Pyongyang Day #1.)

It was a scene of mild pandemonium on the tarmac when the New York Philharmonic touched down at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, as photographers, cameramen, and reporters from the world’s news agencies jostled for position to get images of the orchestra’s arrival in this North Korean city. Truthfully, this was probably the sole chaotic moment in what was otherwise a surprisingly uneventful day that began in Beijing on Monday morning. It was smooth sailing as the orchestra and its entourage gathered at the airport in China and boarded the chartered Asiana jet that would take us on our journey into the unknown. Barely more than an hour later, we were on the ground in Pyongyang. A portrait of Kim Il Sung smiled down on us from high atop the airport terminal as we swarmed and circled in the gentle snow, snapping photographs of each other.

Curious onlookers lined the windows of the terminal, but we never actually went inside. Instead, we were hustled straight to an awaiting fleet of buses and spirited away to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, a handsome skyscraper in which most foreign visitors to North Korea are accommodated. Speeding past gray, blocky buildings and bare winter trees, we might have been anywhere on the planet. But as we approached the city center, patriotic posters and murals appeared with increasing frequency. As we neared the hotel, we passed by buildings and monuments that had previously been just words and photographs in books.

For most voyagers on this trip, Tuesday’s itinerary will provide at least some small opportunity to view these sites at closer range. Today there was scarcely time to drop our bags and catch our breath before we were back on the buses, headed for the massive, imposing Mansudae Art Theater for a performance by North Korean singers and dancers, who performed with blazing smiles and acrobatic skills. The music that accompanied these performers was a sort of highly amplified light-classical gloss on traditional folk themes, orchestrated with the colorful panache of a Broadway musical.

The music was played so pristinely, and the sound mixed so smoothly, that I initially assumed it was pre-recorded. Only after I caught the flash of a tuba bell over the rim of a narrow orchestra pit did I realize that a chamber orchestra of Eastern and Western instruments was playing everything live. A few prominent musicians also played onstage. Kim Un Ha played glistening sweeps and springy bent notes on the okryugum, a modernized version of the traditional kayagum (twelve-string zither) updated to have a brighter, harplike sound.

At the end of the concert, the performers came forward en masse to applaud Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel, seated in the front row. Then, and only then, it was hard to avoid sensing that this had been a sort of royal command performance for a visiting dignitary. Then it was off to the People’s Palace of Culture—suitably palatial, needless to say—for a decidedly lavish banquet at which the New York Philharmonic’s historic visit was toasted with shots of insamsul, a fiery, potent hard liquor made from ginseng.

The orchestra gets down to business tomorrow: presenting musical gifts to North Korean students, teaching master classes at the Pyongyang Conservatory, and, of course, presenting a concert that practically the entire world will be waiting to hear. Just who will be in attendance remains something of a mystery.

Click here for photos from Pyongyang Day #1.