Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:34 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:34 | SYDNEY

What the NY Phil should have played in Pyongyang


Rory Medcalf


28 February 2008 08:58

No doubt the emotion-laden performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Pyongyang this week was a powerful step towards détente in US-North Korea relations. It must have been quite the diplomatic juggling act: choosing a program of music that conceded enough to the propaganda imperatives of both sides yet was not ideologically loaded to the point of causing grievous offence.

But while An American in Paris and Dvorak’s New World Symphony may have been satisfying both politically and musically (well, in the case of the latter work at least), I can’t help but wonder what might have been.  The New York Phil and dear Maestro Maazel might, for instance, have done more to adapt to local conditions, by offering a program of music more in tune with the realities of daily life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  For instance:

  • Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (subtitled ‘a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism’): OK, so despite the fact that this was the offering with which poor brilliant Dmitri redeemed himself in the eyes of his own Dear Leader, after a life-threatening foray into bourgeois decadence in some earlier works, its final movement was actually a terrifying satire of Stalinism disguised as a triumphal march. But I suspect the concert-goers of Pyongyang would have found it positively soothing.
  • Ravel’s Bolero: tedious, the water-torture of orchestral music. When will it stop?
  • Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: a reminder that nuclear proliferation can be, to say the least, a mixed blessing.
  • Mars, from Holst’s Planets suite: Just in case the Shostakovich wasn’t warlike enough.
  • And finally, John Cage’s all-too-rarely performed icon of 20th century music, 4 minutes 33 seconds, in which the musicians sit in total silence for the allotted time and the performance consists of the nervous sounds the audience makes. Just like public debate in Pyongyang.