After being firmly in the camp of folks who’ve been feeling blasé about the New York Philharmonic giving a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, I’m now strangely excited about the whole thing. Although admittedly when I learned two weeks ago that a good friend of mine was going I became more than casually interested. But this morning is what made me completely gaga: When I logged on to CNN this morning, it was the top news story. This is the first time in my life that a report about a concert of classical music was the number 1 news item. (The only other classical music headline I can recall was the death of Leonard Bernstein.)
Of course, I’m still very disappointed that the Philharmonic didn’t use this historic opportunity to premiere a new work by a living American composer, or a living composer from North Korea, or even a non-premiere by someone who is still alive—their neglect of contemporary music was, after all, the source of my feeling blasé. My disappointment was accentuated when I heard the soundbyte of Lorin Maazel addressing the audience before leading the orchestra in a performance of An American in Paris: “Someday a composer may write a work entitled Americans in Pyongyang.”
I’ve heard the Phil under Maazel do Gershwin and thought it showed them at their best, so I’m sure they delivered the goods once again. And Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which was also on the program, seems very appropriate since it is also the byproduct of a stranger in a strange land. But what could have been a better fit with this repertoire than something created specifically for this event? Historically, most events of this type come with a new piece, from J.S. Bach’s composition of numerous secular cantatas to add pomp to important civic occasions to Britten’s opera Gloriana, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, or even Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997 Heaven, Earth, Mankind, created for a concert celebrating the reunification of Hong Kong with the People’s Republic of China.
Of course, so much can go wrong in effecting a concert in a country with which the nation the visiting orchestra has come from has no diplomatic relations. Doing a new piece might have added an element that was too unpredictable, and potentially too volatile. Or perhaps it just wasn’t a priority, which would really be a shame.
Still, getting the normally no-attention-span-for-culture-of-any-type media to give this event major airtime is really significant. No doubt it helps that it involves a country demonized for decades and largely shrouded in mystery to most of us. So what can the contemporary music community learn from all of this? Might composers be able to make headlines if we all began writing works for performance in Syria? More importantly, will the New York Phil be able to accomplish with music what world leaders have been unable to do for over a half a century? If so, perhaps there will come a time when music won’t be so marginalized in the media.