Serenading the Tyrant (updated)

Rick Moran
Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor/composer who frequently fronted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is probably smiling in heaven about now.

A huge talent whose contributions to American music are unquestioned, nevertheless had a notorious soft spot for communist dictators. So it no doubt has pleased his ghost that his orchestra is playing North Korea.

It is the first time an American cultural organization had made an appearance in North Korea and it represented the largest contingent of Americans to set foot in the communist country since the end of the Korean war:

As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many in the audience perched forward in their seats.

The piccolo played a long, plaintive melody. Cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the staid audience, row upon row of men in dark suits, women in colorful high-waisted dresses called hanbok and all of them wearing pins with the likeness of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder.

And right there, the Philharmonic had them. The full-throated performance of a piece deeply resonant for both North and South Koreans ended the historic concert in this isolated nation on Tuesday in triumph.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s main state-controlled daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, gave a brief account of the concert, with a picture of the orchestra, on an inside page. Of Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s music director, it said, “His performance was very sophisticated and sensitive.”
I am very happy that the Philharmonic is a hit. One could hardly expect otherwise given the dearth of cultural opportunities in the North. And I was happy to see that the audience was so appreciative of the effort of those fine musicians.

But the problem is spelled out in the information that was actually disseminated to the public. It points up that this trip was a one way exchange, that Kim and the tyrannical regime he runs were not interested in breaking the ice, or opening a new era, or any other euphemism you would like to use to describe what the US was trying to accomplish.

This was a propaganda victory for North Korea. And if anyone asks the State Department what we might get in return, I'm sure they will be suitably vague and unresponsive. Perhaps the old canard "As long as we're talking - or playing music - we're not shooting at each other" will be trotted out.

At this point, that's about all the State Department can say about the trip.

Update -- Cliff Thier writes:

Two observations to add to what Mr. Moran wrote: the audience was without any doubt made up of the safest of the safe, the most loyal of the loyal, the most monstrous of the monsters that uphold the pure evil of the Kim regime. The killers, the jailers, the informers, the torturers. Kim's SS and his Gestapo.

These were the people the Philharmonic was entertaining. These were the people the musicians were telling "we don't think you're all so bad."

Second, haven't we learned from the writings of the Soviet Union's surviving refusink's that in the prisons, in the gulag, political prisoners are deeply aware of how the civilized world treats their jailers? Mr. Mazel and his musicians have sent North Korea's political prisoners a message too: "We don't care."
Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor/composer who frequently fronted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is probably smiling in heaven about now.

A huge talent whose contributions to American music are unquestioned, nevertheless had a notorious soft spot for communist dictators. So it no doubt has pleased his ghost that his orchestra is playing North Korea.

It is the first time an American cultural organization had made an appearance in North Korea and it represented the largest contingent of Americans to set foot in the communist country since the end of the Korean war:

As the New York Philharmonic played the opening notes of “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song, a murmur rippled through the audience. Many in the audience perched forward in their seats.

The piccolo played a long, plaintive melody. Cymbals crashed, harp runs flew up, the violins soared. And tears began forming in the eyes of the staid audience, row upon row of men in dark suits, women in colorful high-waisted dresses called hanbok and all of them wearing pins with the likeness of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder.

And right there, the Philharmonic had them. The full-throated performance of a piece deeply resonant for both North and South Koreans ended the historic concert in this isolated nation on Tuesday in triumph.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s main state-controlled daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, gave a brief account of the concert, with a picture of the orchestra, on an inside page. Of Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic’s music director, it said, “His performance was very sophisticated and sensitive.”
I am very happy that the Philharmonic is a hit. One could hardly expect otherwise given the dearth of cultural opportunities in the North. And I was happy to see that the audience was so appreciative of the effort of those fine musicians.

But the problem is spelled out in the information that was actually disseminated to the public. It points up that this trip was a one way exchange, that Kim and the tyrannical regime he runs were not interested in breaking the ice, or opening a new era, or any other euphemism you would like to use to describe what the US was trying to accomplish.

This was a propaganda victory for North Korea. And if anyone asks the State Department what we might get in return, I'm sure they will be suitably vague and unresponsive. Perhaps the old canard "As long as we're talking - or playing music - we're not shooting at each other" will be trotted out.

At this point, that's about all the State Department can say about the trip.

Update -- Cliff Thier writes:

Two observations to add to what Mr. Moran wrote: the audience was without any doubt made up of the safest of the safe, the most loyal of the loyal, the most monstrous of the monsters that uphold the pure evil of the Kim regime. The killers, the jailers, the informers, the torturers. Kim's SS and his Gestapo.

These were the people the Philharmonic was entertaining. These were the people the musicians were telling "we don't think you're all so bad."

Second, haven't we learned from the writings of the Soviet Union's surviving refusink's that in the prisons, in the gulag, political prisoners are deeply aware of how the civilized world treats their jailers? Mr. Mazel and his musicians have sent North Korea's political prisoners a message too: "We don't care."