Monday, February 25, 2008

An American orchestra in Pyongyang

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, heir to Mahler and Bernstein, the oldest philharmonic orchestra in America, is on the road, arriving earlier today in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, what the world knows as North Korea. The visit culminates Tuesday with the orchestra, under the direction of Lorin Maazel, performing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” in a program to be broadcast on state television. It will be the first concert appearance by an American orchestra in that longsuffering Stalinist state.

After years of noise and ugly saber-rattling over North Korea’s right to enrich uranium, possibly for the development of nuclear weapons, the performance could go a long way to calming the still-choppy diplomatic waters between Washington and Pyongyang, restoring America’s cultural influence — some of what Andrew Sullivan calls “America’s soft power” — and bridging the cultural divide that’s often easier to close than the political one.

Van Cliburn did much the same in 1958, when, as a 23-year-old piano phenom from Texas, he overwhelmed the judges in Moscow at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, an event meant to capitalize on the rise of Soviet global influence — most dramatically shown by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

In 1959, deeper still in the cold-war era, Leonard Bernstein, conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, took the orchestra on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, performing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. And one can’t forget the American ping-pong players who genially stormed Beijing in 1971, doing their bit for diplomacy at a table tennis tournament.

The Philharmonic’s performance may offer some of that frisson of creative freedom, that benign impact as necessary as diplomacy to advance the interests of the West, and more specifically, those of the United States. The wild card, of course, is Kim Jong Il, the reclusive leader of North Korea, a man whose off-the-hook personal eccentricities have underscored in Washington and elsewhere a need to keep North Korea from ever achieving the bomb.

You never know what that crazy Kim will do next; the archest American conservatives and most ardent hawks will no doubt invoke the dark spectre of the USS Pueblo, the Navy intelligence ship seized with its crew by the North Koreans in January 1968, when Kim's father was in charge. The crew was held for 11 months and then released; the ship itself remains in Pyongyang to this day.

That kind of madness would be a stretch even for Kim Jong Il. But probably, the Philharmonic’s visit will go over without incident, raising the promise of another kind of breakthrough: what happens when a baton is thrown across the water, rather than a policy statement or a bomb — a re-emergence of the power of culture to do what power itself is often powerless to achieve.
Image credits: New York Philharmonic in North Korea: Chris Lee, © 2008 New York Philharmonic. North Korea: Kokiri, released under terms of GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Kim Jong Il: Probably DPRK government photo. Lorin Maazel: © Chris Lee, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

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