Taking questions at the Dec. 11 press conference: the NY Philharmonic’s chairman Paul Guenther, its president Zarin Mehta, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador Pak Gil Yon (left to right)
Should the NY Philharmonic travel to North Korea, the erstwhile member of the “axis of evil”? YES.
Does the announced program for the orchestra’s controversial foray into cultural diplomacy—“An American in Paris” (Gershwin) and “From the New World” (Dvořák)—carry sufficient heft for this weighty occasion? NO.
I don’t buy the opponents’ argument (most forcefully expressed by the Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout), that a classical music concert can somehow lend “legitimacy” to a despot. Kim Jong-il‘s future clout may owe much to improving his relationship with George Bush, but nothing to cozying up to Zarin Mehta and Lorin Maazel.
What I DO think is that music and musicians can help foster ties among people and cultures, transcending political and philosophical differences. This wouldn’t be the first time that cordial cultural exchanges occurred between countries with cold political relations, on the verge of warming. In the museum field, there is a long history of “détente” exhibitions (as once described by art critic John Russell in the NY Times here).
When cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union were resumed in 1986 for the first time since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the Reagan White House issued a press release saying that such artistic activity ”can help break down barriers, lessen distrust, reduce the levels of secrecy and bring forth a more open world.” The President himself commented:
Civilized people everywhere have a stake in keeping contacts, communication and creativity as broad, deep and free as possible.
There are some important caveats, however: While a thaw in political relations (thanks to progress in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program) may make cultural exchanges possible, U.S. organizations should have complete artistic freedom in devising their plans and should not allow themselves to become political tools for either their home country or their host country.
In a NY Times Op-Ed piece last October, two informed analysts of this North Korean overture—Richard V. Allen, previously Reagan’s national security adviser and currently co-chairman of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and Chuck Downs, a member of that committee’s board—listed “reasonable demands” that the orchestra should make before taking the stage in Pyongyang:
…that the orchestra alone set its program; that the performance be broadcast on state radio for everyone to hear; that the concert hall be open to the public, not just the elite; and that the Western press be allowed to attend. If the regime refuses these conditions, the Philharmonic should, in the name of artistic freedom, decline to perform in North Korea.
Fair enough. In its announcement of the Feb. 26 concert, the Philharmonic indicated that most of these conditions will likely be met. The program will include the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The orchestra expects to “welcome students to an open rehearsal, and we are working on arranging for New York Philharmonic musicians to give master classes at the music conservatory in Pyongyang.” The orchestra stipulated that it “would be accompanied by an international press corps.”
What’s more, as quoted in a NY Times‘ report of the agreement, Christopher Hill, our country’s chief negotiator with North Korea, said that the concert would be broadcast nationwide “to ensure that not just a small elite would hear” it.
The piece missing from the “reasonable demands” stipulated by Allen and Downs is that the general public, not just the elite, be granted admission to the concert hall. This too should be a precondition for a performance abroad by one of our country’s premier orchestras.
And while the Philharmonic is probably right not to provoke its hosts with overtly political programming, it could endeavor to make more subtle but powerful points about democracy in two ways: Instead of playing only easy-listening favorites for beginners, it should slip in one short but challenging piece by a contemporary American composer (my choice: Elliot Carter), to demonstrate what contemporary creativity can be in a free society.
And they should make the most of that permitted patriotic moment—our national anthem: Get a great American soprano to sing it—someone who can make the penultimate phrase, “o’er the land of the FREE,” ring out gloriously. [Long pause] “And the home of the brave.”