Could the New York Philharmonic be to blame for North Korea's latest nuclear test? Perhaps not, but the Phil's Pyongyang performance provided provoking metaphors and subtly veiled symbolism -- and maybe an argument for letting artists, not diplomats, do the talking.
If former US Attorney General John Ashcroft's "Let the Eagle Soar" is any indication, maybe we shouldn't be in the business of mixing music and policy.
However, the New York Philharmonic begs to differ. In February 2008, the world-renowned symphony orchestra traveled to the Asian headquarters of the Axis of Evil, Pyongyang, North Korea, to perform one of the most inspiring acts of musical diplomacy the world stage has ever seen. The DVD of this concert has just recently been released and is available through the New York Philharmonic's website.
With the help of Musical Director Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic carefully crafted a performance filled with undertones -- some diplomatic, some patriotic, some empathetic -- all contributing to the historic nature of the event and the ability of the arts to distill anything, even the negotiations of two nations that are, at least in theory, at war with each other. With top North Korean officials present and an estimated 200 million people around the world (including many North Koreans) watching the performance on live television, the Phil began with something unthinkable to a Bush State of the Union speechwriter -- the side-by-side performance of North Korea's national anthem, "Aegukka," and "The Star Spangled Banner."
After that, the Phil wasted no time in pouring on the symbolism. First up was the Prelude from Act III of Wagner's classic opera "Lohengrin," a work most famous in popular culture for its Bridal Chorus, most commonly know as "Here Comes the Bride." However, look just below the surface to find a thinly veiled message (not bride) for the North Korean people. "Lohengrin" follows the plot line of the "Knight of the Swan," a medieval folklore about a knight who comes in a swan-drawn boat to rescue a damsel in distress under one condition: that she never ask his name. Translate this into modern diplomacy, and this could very easily be seen as an outstretched hand to the leaders of a failing, unsustainable state, paired with a reminder of the consequences for not heeding the conditions laid out by negotiators.
Next came an even more obvious message with the performance of Dvorak's most famous work, "Symphony No. 9 in E minor," known by most as the "New World Symphony." This piece is the epitome of American nationalism. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1893, Dvorak used the piece as a template for combining what he thought were the most American of sounds -- Native American and African-American folk melodies. Not only was this performance an opportunity for the Phil to tout its tradition, but perhaps this was also meant as a reminder to North Koreans of the inclusiveness that Americans (in theory) pride themselves on. (Let's not get into Prop. 8 right now.)
The final announced piece for the performance was introduced by a joke. "Someday a composer may write a work titled 'Americans in Pyongyang,'" Maazel said playfully in reference to Gershwin's "An American in Paris." Just as Gershwin had reflected upon the "triumphant" French atmosphere with his timeless tone poem, members of the Phil were offering their own musical experiences as visiting foreigners. But beyond that, the piece invoked Gershwin's attempt to understand and appreciate a different culture, and offered a point of reflection on just how much smaller the world is today than it was when Gershwin put his pen to notation staves in 1928.
Finally, came the unannounced addition to the program: a performance of a quintessential Korean folk song, "Arirang." A song that is equally poignant in both North and South Korea, its lyrics describe the longing of two lovers to reunite, offering a not-so-subtle parallel to the possibility of Korean reunification. According to those who were present, the ovation after "Arirang" lasted for five minutes.
But in light of North Korea's latest bout of defiance, how should we interpret the Philharmonic's performance? Too appeasing? Too confrontational? Too moralizing? Too sentimental? Perhaps the Phil should have played Beethoven's ominous "Symphony No. 5," or Stravinsky's bold and insubordinate "Firebird Suite." Maybe Maazel should have just passed the conductor's baton to John Bolton for a more in-your-face performance. Just as Obama and Clinton are working to adapt and refine our diplomatic policy towards North Korea, maybe Michael Tilson Thomas or Gustavo Dudamel will brave the trip across the Pacific with a new musical strategy for defeating terrorism.