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(2nd LD) NY Phil's concert sets stage for cultural diplomacy

All Headlines 20:42 February 26, 2008

(ATTN: UPDATES with details)
By Kwon Yeong-seok

PYONGYANG, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- An ensemble of U.S. musicians and a North Korean audience waved to each other Tuesday night at the end of a milestone concert in Pyongyang, an emotional scene that may herald a thaw in frozen Pyongyang-Washington ties.

As the New York Philharmonic played Arirang, the most popular Korean folk song, at the end of its 90-minute performance here, the nearly 1,500 North Koreans who packed the concert hall appeared to be deeply moved. They gave a minutes-long standing ovation after the concert and stayed in the hall, beaming smiles and waving hands to the musicians, who waved back from the stage.

The concert started with the national anthems of the two nations, which fought fiercely during the 1950-53 Korean War. They remain technically at war as the war ended in an armistice, not a formal peace treaty. Their relations have been subjected to growing stress due to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

With large U.S. and North Korean flags hanging on the opposite sides of the stage, the entire audience rose in a solemn mood when the national anthems were played.

When introducing Lorin Maazel, the orchestra's music director, a North Korean woman serving as the master of ceremonies told the audience that the performance was the "first step toward artistic exchanges between the two nations."

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il did not show up at the concert, televised live throughout North Korea and internationally, although Yang Hyong-sup, vice president of the Supreme People's Assembly, was sitting in the front row.

"My colleagues of the New York Philharmonic and I are pleased to play in this fine hall today," Maazel said as he addressed the audience of men in dark Western suits and women in colorful traditional Korean attire.

The program included Richard Wagner's "Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin," Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" and George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

In his remarks translated into Korean, Maazel expressed hope that "Someday an American may write a work called 'Americans in Pyongyang.'"

Interviewed by South Korea's MBC television network, a North Korean songwriter named Han Song said she was especially impressed by the tune of Dvorak's "From the New World."

"I listened to it many times via recording, but it is my first time to hear it played live," she said.

The concert's estimated impact on Pyongyang-Washington relations remains unclear.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement that "it is expected to contribute to enhancing mutual understanding and trust between North Kora and the United States."

Many also said that the New York Philharmonic's performance in the heart of the isolated country will help thaw its chilly ties with its old archenemy.

"Watching North Koreans listen to the U.S. national anthem courteously, on their feet, I felt the mood of respecting each other," said Kim Cheol-woong, a North Korean pianist who defected to the South. "The New York Phil performance will likely serve as a stepping stone for improving relations between North Korea and the U.S."

But there were also cautious views about the impact of the event held amid the North Korean nuclear crisis and its dismal human rights record.

"There is no question that there is some hope that the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang will ease the situation. I don't know whether that in fact will happen," Wendy R. Sherman, who served as then U.S. President Bill Clinton's North Korea policy coordinator, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency earlier in the day.

"I think it is a good thing that the Philharmonic is in Pyongyang, but people should not have too high expectations on what one visit by the Philharmonic will achieve," she added.


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