Monday, March 03, 2008

Five Myths, Direct From Pyongyang

What Not to Think About the Philharmonic Concert
March 1, 2008; Page W16

Now that the New York Philharmonic has paid its long-awaited visit to North Korea, the floodtide of justificatory gush has begun. Lorin Maazel, the orchestra's music director, intoned that "in the world of music, all men and women are brothers and sisters." A South Korean newspaper described the trip as "an overture to peace between the North and the United States." The Los Angeles Times called it "a publicity coup for an institution . . . much in need of a lift." And Eric Clapton says he's been invited to play in Pyongyang.

Eric Clapton?

[Eric Clapton]
Eric Clapton has been invited to play in North Korea.

Things are starting to get a little silly here. So before any more 62-year-old rock stars decide to hop the next plane to Pyongyang, allow me to point out five mistaken ideas about the Philharmonic's concert:

- The fact that the audience responded warmly to the concert proves that it was a good idea. "We just went out and did our thing," Mr. Maazel told reporters, "and we began to feel this warmth coming back. . . . I think it's going to do a great deal." Bunk. All it proves is that apparatchiks can be sentimental, too, a fact that the Wagner-loving Adolf Hitler proved long ago. Every North Korean who was permitted to attend that concert was undoubtedly vetted by Kim Jong Il's secret police. No wonder they wept when they heard the Philharmonic play their national anthem. End of story.

- Any direct contact between North Korea and the U.S. is by definition desirable. Not if it makes things worse for the North Koreans -- and it may. Kim Cheol-woong, a musician who defected from Pyongyang to the West in 2001, warned the Journal's Melanie Kirkpatrick that "there will be educational sessions . . . [on] the triumph of Kim Jong Il's political leadership, which resulted in the fact that even the American artistic group is coming to knock their foreheads on the floor in front of General Kim."

- Even if only a handful of North Korean musicians heard the concert and found it inspiring, it was worth giving. Really? Are musicians more important than "ordinary" North Koreans? Remember that North Korea is a tightly shuttered society. All that its people know about the concert is what Kim tells them. Will they see the Philharmonic's visit as a beacon of hope, or proof that their Dear Leader is so powerful that the Americans come running when he crooks his little finger?

As for the handful of North Korean musicians who were allowed to meet with the members of the Philharmonic, they did so under the severest of constraints. A quartet of Americans led by Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra's concertmaster, rehearsed the Mendelssohn Octet with four young North Korean string players and found their performance "attuned and sensitive." But Daniel J. Wakin reported in the New York Times that they "exchanged few words" with their American counterparts -- and that the moment the performance was over, "the North Koreans quickly left the area. . . . At the end the four Americans received bouquets, and Mr. Dicterow tried to hand his to the North Korean next to him. The player refused it." If you're wondering why, I suggest you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" to learn what happens to people under totalitarian rule who make the deadly mistake of talking to foreign visitors.

- People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. So said Mr. Maazel in response to charges that the Philharmonic had agreed to play for a monster who starves and jails his own people en masse. "Is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated?" he asked before leaving for Asia. "Have we set an example that should be emulated all over the world? If we can answer that question honestly, I think we can then stop being judgmental about the errors made by others." In other words, the U.S. is morally equivalent to a country thought to have imprisoned some 150,000 North Koreans in Soviet-style prison camps.

That notion is beneath contempt.

- Great art can change the world. As for Mr. Clapton, he would do well to lend an ear to his fellow rocker Neil Young. "I think that the time when music could change the world is past," Mr. Young recently said. "I think it would be very naïve to think that in this day and age." Indeed it would, but far too many artists are just that naïve, not to mention vain (which makes one wonder exactly why Mr. Young is joining with Bruce Springsteen in contributing songs to the soundtrack album of the forthcoming antiwar film "Body of War"). Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, called such foolish folk "art-silly," going on to issue the following warning: "Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art." Least of all does it have the power to tear down the high walls of tyranny -- or to feed the terror-stricken people of North Korea.

Irene Breslau, a member of the Philharmonic's viola section, got it right on the nose: "I've had a lot of moral reservations based on wondering what a concert for the elite is going to do to help the people starving in the street," she told the Associated Press. Too bad Ms. Breslau's bosses didn't ask themselves that question before sending her to Pyongyang.


NOW FROM ONE FREE KOREA.............................................................................................................

may this be the last NY Philharmonic post

I am really, really tired of blogging about this, but I have two more links that I can’t pass up (thanks to the readers who forwarded them). Both have to do with the N.Y. Philharmonic’s financial backers, and both reflect very different ways of viewing the orchestra’s visit — with and without its moral context. The first story, from long-time Korea hand Don Kirk, is mildly inspiring:

During one of the carefully scripted tours of the capital prior to Tuesday’s concert, two dozen well-to-do Philharmonic patrons surprised their omnipresent guides by refusing to toss flowers before the enormous statue of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader, Kim Jong Il.

“They offered us flowers at the hotel to put in front of the statue,” says G. Chris Andersen, founding partner of GC Andersen Partners, a New York investment banking firm. “We declined that opportunity, saying we don’t do that in our country.”

That small act of defiance was one sign of an ambivalence shared by many of the more than 100 musicians, who flew to South Korea to give the final concert of the tour Thursday.

Always nice to know that not all of our nation’s cultural elite is willing to bow to graven images of bloodthirsty despots.

While deeply moved by extraordinary displays of hospitality as well as the cheers of the audience, some of the musicians were uncomfortable about playing in a nation suffering from lack of food as well as political persecution.

“How many millions of people could be fed with all they spent on us,” asks Enrico DiCCecco, a violinist in his 47th year with the orchestra. “What killed us,” he says, is knowing that Kim Jong Il “is starving his own people.” [Christian Science Monitor, Don Kirk]

But as with glasses, some of us tend to see the head that is half empty. Our second story is about the Japanese-born countess, Lady Yoko Nagae Ceschina, whose late Italian husband (not to mention some good lawyers) left her with far more money than good judgment, and who recently decided that Kim Jong Il ought to have some of it:

She says she is funding the concert with faith that music can succeed where words and diplomacy fail. “I hope that this will lead to some good will,” she says in an interview at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. “Even if I’m criticized, I believe in my position.” [Wall Street Journal]

Faith yet! Strip away that, good taste, and thirty kilos of cellulite and you have Paris Hilton.

The Philharmonic later asked Mrs. Ceschina to sponsor the concert. The Philharmonic and Mrs. Ceschina declined to disclose the costs of housing, feeding and moving 280 musicians, staff and others. South Korean broadcasting network MBC and Asiana Airlines are providing transportation.

The orchestra has an exclusive, three-year sponsorship deal with Credit Suisse, which is funding the orchestra’s five-city tour of Asia that began Feb. 11. A Credit Suisse executive says it isn’t paying for the North Korea visit but wouldn’t elaborate.

Mrs. Ceschina says the Philharmonic sought her support because, unlike a corporate sponsor, she was undaunted by potential controversy. “It was probably good for them because I’m free from politics and companies,” she says. “I always support them without thinking about political issues.”

I may have underrated the subtlety of North Korean propaganda. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that dozens of once-sensible middle-class folk who read this now firmly believe in the expropriation of surplus wealth. I wonder if I earn in a decade what the Countess has squandered so promiscuously on God-knows-what priority of Kim Jong Il’s budget. As long as wealth and merit are laded out by in separate kitchens, class warfare will have eternal appeal — inevitable consequences be damned. Still, even this article told enough of the other side of the story that on balance, this concert did the North Korean regime more harm than good:

Some human-rights advocates say the Philharmonic’s concert will be used as propaganda by the North Korean government, which struggles to shape its world image. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are believed held in prison camps; estimates of famine-related deaths total two million people since shortages began in the 1990s.

Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of international politics at Tufts University, is skeptical music can help. “It’s a very brutal system, and for a world-class, prestigious orchestra like the New York Philharmonic to put its reputation on the line to bring a thaw in this frozen relationship, to my mind, is not realistic,” he says.

AND ALSO THIS........................................................................................................................................

YOU DON’T SAY: Actual North Koreans don’t think the New York Phil’s visit will mean much.

“Most people…are busy trying to make ends meet and put food on the table, and what they truly need is rice and money, so they have little freedom to think about music . . . . Rather than sit around and listen to classical music, people have to spend that time to go out and pluck another bunch of weeds to sell or boil in their pot at home. Only members of the elite have the leisure to think about politics or this kind of cultural event.” [Radio Free Asia]

Still, it’s encouraging that not even the New York Times was fooled by this superficial gesture. That RFA story also has some interesting anecdotes on what North Koreans really think of America and the outside world, which you should take with the obvious caveats.

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