Politics forgotten when concert starts

Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Their bows raced across the strings in unison as they played Felix Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings. They shared a common passion for music.

But the gulf between North Korean and American musicians was never more obvious than when they shared a stage on the final day of the New York Philharmonic's historic visit here.

The North Koreans wore dark suits and red lapel pins of their country's founder, Kim Il Sung, to a master class and informal concert Wednesday at the Moranbong Theater in Pyongyang. The American look was more casual chic (if a little rumpled at the end of a two-week Asia tour). Even the maestro, Lorin Maazel, wore a corduroy jacket on the podium to conduct the North Korean State Symphony.

The American musicians were surprised to see that the state symphony is still a male bastion, the only women being two harpists. The ratio in the philharmonic is almost 50-50.

The repertoire of the New York Philharmonic on this tour alone ranged from Gershwin to Beethoven.

The North Korean State Symphony often plays pieces such as "Glory to the General" and "Pyongyang Is Best," which, according to the state news agency, is a "profound symphonic rendition to the idea that socialist Korea centered on the popular masses is the best in the world."

To the extent that the North Korean musicians play Western classical music, the composers are usually Russian -- a holdover from Soviet times, when the Communist countries enjoyed warm relations. One of the pieces the state symphony played Wednesday under Maazel's baton was Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy-Overture. The North Koreans tend to like their classical music romantic and operatic. The jazzy spontaneity of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," which the philharmonic played in its own concert the night before, felt positively subversive by North Korean standards.

The North Korean orchestra faces chronic difficulties obtaining quality instruments, even strings and rosin for the violins. The philharmonic musicians brought to the concert cellos that were appraised at more than $500,000 each.

Despite all the obstacles, the New Yorkers gave their North Korean counterparts high marks.

"You could have given them cigar boxes to strum and it would have sounded wonderful," enthused Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra's concertmaster, who led the musicians playing the Mendelssohn. The four North Koreans who joined four Americans in the octet were given the music only last month for what was supposed to be a master class.

"I was prepared to stop and start," Dicterow said. "There was absolutely no need. They played the piece perfectly."

The musicians also belied the stereotype of North Koreans as expressionless automatons. They played with far more gusto than might be expected in as repressive a country as North Korea.

"Music probably provides a great avenue for them to express themselves," suggested cellist Carter Brey.

"They are very emotional. I really felt their passionate commitment to the music we played," Maazel said Wednesday. "We knew so little about what was happening in this country musically."

But North Korea and its people remain as enigmatic as ever. As the 48-hour visit drew to a close, the New York musicians expressed frustration that they had had so little opportunity to talk to their North Korean counterparts. Most conversations consisted of awkward formalities conveyed in broken English through North Korean interpreters, with security officials hovering nearby.

Several of the philharmonic musicians are of Korean origin and speak the language fluently, but they were unable to get much past the pleasantries. Mindful that a North Korean caught chatting too much with a foreigner could get into trouble, they didn't push too hard.

"I asked the North Koreans some questions. They didn't ask me anything. I guess they were afraid," said Lisa E. Kim, a violinist who played in the octet. "I could sense there was so much we wanted to say to one another -- it was hanging in the air. We could only make eye contact."

For all that music might be a universal language, sometimes people just wanted to talk.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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