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Orchestra Director Sees 'Tiny Step' in North Korea


The U.S. and North Korea may officially still be at war - and they are certainly deadlocked over the nuclear issue - but there was a breakthrough in cultural exchanges today when the New York Philharmonic played its first concert in Pyongyang.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the North Korean capital.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Symphony")

ANTHONY KUHN: The anticipation and buildup to the 90-minute concert was so intense that the East Pyongyang Grand Theater practically radiated emotional energy as the philharmonic launched into the climatic fourth movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony." The concert had begun with the "Star Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem, with the two nations' flags on either side of the stage.

(Soundbite of song, "New World Symphony")

KUHN: Things lightened up a bit when conductor Lorin Maazel introduced the next number, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Mr. LORIN MAAZEL (Conductor, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Someday, a composer may write a work entitled Americans in Pyongyang.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "An American in Paris")

KUHN: A whisper rippled through the audience of some 2,000 elites - "Arirang," "Arirang." It was the country's most famous traditional folk song known and loved by people in both halves of this divided nation.

When that finished, the standing ovation continued for more than five minutes. John Deak is the philharmonic's principal bassist. He says that when the musicians left the stage, the North Koreans started waiving at them and things got emotional.

Mr. JOHN DEAK (Principal Bassist, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Half of the orchestra was bursting with tears, including myself. And we started waiving back at them, and suddenly, there was that kind of artistic bond that is just - it's a miracle. I don't know. I'm not going to make any statements about world peace and when everything's going to change or anything. I don't think this, you know, things happen slowly. But I do know that a - the most profound connection was made with the Korean people tonight.

KUHN: After the concert, Lorin Maazel told reporters that the audiences' response was beyond his expectations.

Mr. MAAZEL: You know, when we received this very warm and enthusiastic reception, we felt that, indeed, there may be a mission accomplished here. It may have been instrumental in opening a little door. And we certainly hope that if that's true, that in the long run, it will be seen as a watershed.

LEE: Music is music, so, as you know, music has no boundary.

KUHN: One North Korean member of the audience, who gave only his family name, Lee, gave the philharmonic's performance high marks.

LEE: You've seen the conductor, I mean, the (unintelligible). He told at the start that this is just a start. And I hope so myself. But it can be done only when my country and the USA, their relationship becomes normal.

KUHN: One of the many foreign guests in the audience was former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry.

Mr. WILLIAM PERRY (Former U.S. Defense Secretary): I'm just delighted with the concert. Music is a universal language. Music is a way of bringing people together. And I think this is a very important, not only a cultural event but a very important, ultimately, important political event as well. I'm very pleased with it.

KUHN: Philharmonic board member Ben Rosen said that U.S. government encouragement helped convinced the philharmonic to accept Pyongyang's invitation.

Mr. BEN ROSEN (Board Member, New York Philharmonic Orchestra): Once we heard the state department decided that they're very supportive of it, the board endorsed it not in a formal way but everyone was in favor of doing this.

KUHN: Musically, tonight's concert was an undoubted success. If its political results aren't quite as brilliant, at least its supporters can say it's not out of step with official U.S. policy.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Pyongyang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.