Commentary Magazine


The Philharmonic in Pyongyang

cross-posted at About Last Night

I just got back from a press conference at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall at which the New York Philharmonic officially announced its plans to play in Pyongyang on February 26. Present were Paul Guenther, the orchestra’s chairman; Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president and executive director; and Pak Gil Yon, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN. Christopher Hill, an assistant secretary of state in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was also supposed to be at the press conference, but sent his apologies, claiming that “responsibilities” in Washington prevented him from attending.


• The Philharmonic will spend two and a half days in North Korea. During that time it will give a single concert in Pyongyang in a hall seating 1,500 people. It will then fly to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to give a second concert there.

• Lorin Maazel, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct both performances.

• The Pyongyang program will consist of Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, plus the national anthems of the U.S. and North Korea. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony will be played in Seoul.

• According to a statement released this morning, the orchestra is making the trip with “the encouragement and support of the U.S. Department of State.”

• Paul Guenther said that the Philharmonic’s “somewhat unusual journey” to North Korea would be a reflection of its “calling to serve, which the New York Philharmonic has never shied away from.”

• The concert will be broadcast, but as of this morning Zarin Mehta had no information on whether or how it would be heard inside North Korea, or who will be permitted to attend the performance. “I would guess they do not have the kind of system we have of advertising concerts and selling them,” he said.

• Fifty members of the international media will accompany the orchestra to Pyongyang. Mehta does not know what restrictions will be placed on them by the North Korean government.

• The orchestra wants to give master classes in Pyongyang for “music students and other professionals,” but so far no final arrangements have been made to do so.

• Ambassador Pak dodged the question of whether news of the concert has been released by North Korea’s state-controlled media as of this hour.

• Asked whether the concert would be a propaganda coup for North Korea, Mehta replied, “We’re not going to do any propaganda.”

• More quotes from Mehta:

“One small symphony is a giant leap.”

“All we can do is show the way that music can unite people.”

“We’re going there to create some joy.”

* * *

To read “Serenading a Tyrant,” my original October 27 Wall Street Journal column on the Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang, go here.

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