“I think at the end of the day we consider this concert to be a concert,” was how Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, downplayed the diplomatic side of the New York Philharmonic’s concert in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on Tuesday night. I guess that’s my cue.
From my music critic’s perspective, I think at the end of the day (or at midday or any other time) concerts are good things. They have been known to change lives for the better and have more than once helped to break diplomatic ice. A concert that contains a couple of pretty wonderful works masterfully, spectacularly played by a great orchestra expressing a conspicuous sense of mission is not just any concert. This was the first time in half a century that Americans had traveled en masse to belligerent North Korea. We came bearing the gifts of Gershwin and Dvorak.
How important the concert was politically or culturally remains, obviously, to be seen. At the very least, the trip has meant that the New York Philharmonic, America’s oldest and probably most famous orchestra, has made itself very much seen worldwide. This is certainly a publicity coup for an institution often perceived these days as dull and predictable and much in need of a lift.
Tuesday’s program was televised in Korea, North and South, and around the world. PBS streamed it live in the middle of the night and put it on prime-time television in New York on Tuesday. I caught the radio broadcast on the New York station WQXR, streamed over the Internet. In Los Angeles, the FM station KUSC will air the program Sunday afternoon at 4. KCET, not about to mess with the 50th anniversary of the Osmonds and the like, has asked us to wait until May for the telecast.
So what does it all mean? Quite a bit. Lorin Maazel, the orchestra’s music director, chose his program cautiously. He opened with splashy music from Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony served to show Americans as a welcoming people. In the 19th century, we invited the Czech composer to teach us how to write symphonies based on our indigenous music. Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” demonstrated our curiosity about other people and places. Both the Dvorak and the Gershwin were, long ago, premiered by the New York Philharmonic.
The orchestra was sensational. Say what you will about Maazel’s lack of warmth, he’s gotten this band to play with breathtaking efficiency. If North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, was watching on television, which he almost surely was, I wonder if he got the message that Americans can be generous, but boy are we on top of things, so don’t mess with us. Democracy doesn’t have to mean lack of discipline.
From all accounts, the New York Philharmonic was graciously welcomed into enemy territory, and it may, indeed, have chipped away a bit of ice. But since I hold concerts in greater regard than the White House appears to, I can’t help but fantasize about what kind of music the orchestra might next exploit were it to be entrusted with a for-real diplomatic mission.
I gather the people of North Korea have got to watch what they say or their “Dear Leader” isn’t such a dear. Word is that North Korean symphonic music is mainly in the patriotic mode, extolling the ruler -- people’s music undoubtedly using folk themes in the way Dvorak suggested. So just imagine the North Korean reaction to Thomas Ades’ “America: A Prophecy,” which the New York Philharmonic premiered in 2000. Here, a brilliant young British composer looks, with shocking critical nuance, at modern-day America. The idea that we might actually commission a foreigner to write such a work could send a mighty message about freedom of expression.
In Pyongyang on Tuesday, the New Yorkers played Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture as an encore. Now let an oppressed people hear Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony. In a score that includes spoken text, the orchestra’s beloved former music director stands up to God. That’s a new concept for a country where a careless word about the dictator/deity could mean a firing squad.
The New York Philharmonic has never paid attention to Lou Harrison, the great California composer. It should. Harrison adored Korea and its traditional music. In “Pacifika Rondo,” written in 1963 for a combination of Western and Eastern instruments, Harrison reached across the Pacific in a work of breakthrough world music. The gorgeous first movement, “The Family of the Court,” adapts the Korean style of old. The sixth movement is a protest piece -- “A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb.”
Speaking of the bomb, the orchestra surely must bring to the negotiating table John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” Symphony. Based on the composer’s recent opera, the music reflects the moral concerns that the creators of nuclear weapons felt. Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” which came out of his opera “Nixon in China,” is also a possibility on the theme of diplomacy.
And how could his orchestra overlook Maazel’s own opera, “1984"?