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The New York Philharmonic Plays Pyongyang

The New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR
The New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang's Grand Eastern Theater.

Amid the continuing see-saw of nuclear talks and political posturing between North Korea and the U.S., the New York Philharmonicmay have played a role in softening relations between the two countries.

Conductor Lorin Maazel led a historic concert Feb. 26th in Pyongyang, as the New York Philharmonic became the first major American orchestra to perform in the insulated communist country. North Korean officials broadcast the concert nationwide and internationally.

Along with recently stalled nuclear talks, there's the lasting stigma of the Korean War (1950-53). Technically, North Korea and South Korea remain at war, as the conflict ended in an armed truce that never developed into a formal peace agreement.

Perhaps a little Gershwin and Dvorakhas placated the Pyongyang government. Maazel and the New York musicians came to the North Korean capital armed with the "New World" Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak and the rollicking An American in Paris by George Gershwin.

The event, initiated by North Korea and coordinated with help from the State Department, has been hailed as both a great success of artistic diplomacy and a failed play into the hands of an evil regime.

Christopher R. Hill, the Bush administration's diplomat in negotiations with North Korea, suggested in a New York Times story that "It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process."

After the concert, which included an encore of "Arirang," North Korea's most famous traditional folk song, conductor Lorin Maazel said he was surprised at the overwhelming response.

"When we received this very warm, enthusiastic reception, we felt that indeed there may be a mission accomplished here. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door, and we certainly hope that if that is true, in the long run it will be seen as a watershed."

Maazel wasn't the only New Yorker moved by the event. The Philharmonic's principal bassist, John Deak, said when the musicians started leaving the stage, the North Koreans started waving at them.

"Half of the orchestra burst into tears, including myself and we started waving back at them and suddenly there was this kind of artistic bond that is just a miracle. I'm not going to make any statements about what's going to change or everything. Things happen slowly. But I do know that the most profound connection was made with the Korean people tonight."

But not everyone is lining up to cheer the Philharmonic's visit.

In an article published on, the outspoken British critic Norman Lebrecht calls the event "somewhere along the scale of morally inappropriate and aesthetically offensive." He derides the North Korean government for "starving its own people," and doubts that any of the "average citizens," who are reportedly free to attend the concert, will indeed hear any music.

Critic Terry Teachout, in the online opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, wrote that the Philharmonic visit amounts to "little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime."

The New York Philharmonic is not the first American orchestra to participate in what some might call symphonic diplomacy. In September 1956, the Boston Symphonywas the first major U.S. orchestra to visit the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and in the fall of 1973, thePhiladelphia Orchestramade an unprecedented trip to China.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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