U.S., North Korea find common ground with Philharmonic

Wednesday, February 27, 2008
North Korean members of the audience applauded the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday during a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder ~ Associated Press)

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The New York Philharmonic's unprecedented concert could herald warmer ties between North Korea and the United States. After three encores, some musicians left the stage in tears as the audience waved.

Between horn fanfares and the flourishes of the conductor's baton, the U.S. and North Korea found common ground in a concert Tuesday that spanned American and Korean musical traditions.

Whether the feeling lingers after the music will depend on the North's compliance with an international push to rid it of nuclear weapons.

After the New York Philharmonic played the last notes of the folk song "Arirang," the audience stood and applauded enthusiastically, waving to the musicians.

Orchestra members -- some moved to tears -- paused with their instruments and waved back. The concert that was the highlight of the Philharmonic's 48-hour visit.

The crowd drew music director Lorin Maazel and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow out for a final bow after the rest of the ensemble left the flower-adorned stage at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater.

The concert was broadcast live on North Korean TV, meaning it was heard beyond the 2,500 people in the theater. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, one of the world's most reclusive leaders, did not attend; there was no way to know whether he watched.

"We may have been instrumental in opening a little door," Maazel said after the performance.

He dismissed the significance of Kim's absence, saying: "I have yet to see the president of the United States at one of my concerts. Sometimes a statesman is too busy."

Former U.S. defense secretary William Perry attended the performance and called it a "historic moment," remembering how close the countries came to war in 1994 amid a crisis over the North's nuclear program.

"This might just have pushed us over the top" in finding a way beyond past discord, he said after the concert, adding that Washington should reciprocate by inviting North Korean performers to the United States.

"You cannot demonize people when you're sitting there listening to their music. You don't go to war with people unless you demonize them first," Perry said.

North Korea's vice culture minister agreed.

"I can say that through the concert tonight, all the members of the New York Philharmonic opened the hearts of the Korean people," Song Sok Hwan told the orchestra. The concert, he said at a banquet, "serves as an important occasion to open a chapter of mutual understanding between the two countries."

Performing on a stage flanked by the U.S. and North Korean flags, the Philharmonic played the North Korean national anthem, "Patriotic Song," following by "The Star-Spangled Banner." The audience stood respectfully and held their applause until both had been performed.

After the Philharmonic, a rock concert could be in the works -- officials at North Korea's embassy in London confirmed Tuesday they had invited British guitarist Eric Clapton to play in Pyongyang.

However, Clapton spokeswoman Kristen Foster said there is no agreement for him to perform in North Korea.

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