Symphony reports from Pyongyang

Day #2

Symphony contributing writer Steve Smith accompanied the New York Philharmonic on its groundbreaking visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here’s Smith’s second report, as he tours Pyongyang during the day and attends the Philharmonic’s historic performance on the evening of Tuesday, February 26. (Click here for photos from Day #2.)

Before the New York Philharmonic played a single note on the stage of the East Pyongyang Grand Theater on Tuesday night, the orchestra received a rousing, sustained ovation simply for being there. After all the planning, all the coordination, and all the debate, internal and otherwise, everything came down to this: One of America’s oldest, grandest musical institutions was making a striking statement by agreeing to play a concert for people who had never previously had a chance to hear it, and some who had never heard an orchestra play live before, period. Kim Jong-Il declined to make an appearance, but I can only assume that the North Koreans in the audience were as genuinely stirred by their national anthem played as I was to hear the “Star Spangled Banner,” even after spending more than a day surrounded by tough, shrewd political reporters.

A fast-paced rendition of Wagner’s Lohengrin Overture served as an ebullient start to the concert proper. Then came the two pieces whose inclusion seemed wiser upon reflection than they initially might have to many observers: a handsomely paced, elegantly shaded account of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony revealed the soul of America as envisioned by a foreign composer, while Gershwin’s An American in Paris represented an idealized vision of our own engagement with other cultures. The latter was also an especially gutsy inclusion given the taboo status of jazz in North Korean culture.

The New York Philharmonic musicians performed here with an assertiveness that indicated they understood the eyes of the entire world were (or would soon be) upon them, as well as a confidence that suggested they knew they were equal to the task. The orchestra’s three encores included a dazzling dash through the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2; the Candide Overture, played without conductor in a continuing tribute to former Music Director Leonard Bernstein; and a plush arrangement of “Arirang,” a traditional, much loved Korean folk song. The enthusiastic roar of the audience continued unabated even when the orchestra filed offstage, smiling and waving.

Next to me sat Mr. Choi, my designated handler here in Pyongyang. Though occasionally beleaguered by an unruly, sometimes uncontrollable mob of American reporters and photographers, Mr. Choi kept his wits about him, and provided some invaluable guidance during this brief stay. Here he had me return the favor by explaining to him what each of the pieces meant. A colleague asked him what other performances he’d heard in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater. He replied that he’d never been to anything there before.

Similar anecdotes seemed to confirm what skeptics had been suggesting all along: Most of the people with whom we spoke had never seen a concert of this magnitude, nor had they attended anything at this theater. Add to that a lack of information about how tickets had been acquired or distributed, along with rows of seats reserved for “ambassadors,” and it was hard not to suspect that few local citizens were likely to be among the capacity audience here.

Still, the orchestra had been given assurances that the concert would be broadcast live throughout the country, and one writer reported this evening that, according to a colleague, this had at least been true here in the Pyongyang metropolitan area. And even that much of an outreach counts as a genuine spark in a country whose media offerings are either politically pointed or sanitized.

The concert came near the end of a day filled to capacity with activities for players and press alike. For many, there were sites to be seen: imposing statues of Kim Il-Sung; colorful murals of the “Eternal President” and his son, the “Great Leader”; an ornate subway station sunk deep under the city; and an opulent library and lecture facility with exceptionally patient guides. That was my itinerary as a member of the press, while elsewhere the Philharmonic players had a dress rehearsal and a gift-giving ceremony with local student musicians. Later in the afternoon, a handful of orchestral musicians (including Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow) went to the Pyongyang Conservatory, where they presented master classes for first-year students.

The players had some time to celebrate and bask in the immensity of their achievement tonight during a banquet in their honor. Rest should be on the agenda, as well: Wednesday is another busy day, including a chamber-music performance with members of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea State Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal conducted by Lorin Maazel. And shortly after noon, the visit to Pyongyang reaches its conclusion all too soon.

Click here for photos from Day #2.