Two Days that Shake the World

The Dear Leader

Photo by Teresa Clark — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Good thing John Reed didn’t play in an orchestra: Who knows what would have happened to the history of totalitarianism?

The conservative press is crashing their cymbals over the news that the New York Philharmonic will be playing in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on February 26. The Philharmonic will pay a two day visit that includes the concert, broadcast live back to the States, along with an open rehearsal and master classes for North Korean student musicians. The North Korean appearance is part of the orchestra’s three week tour to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.

Arts critic Terry Teachout, writing in the Wall Street Journal, tagged the visit as “doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime.” Music critic Fred Kirshnit of the New York Sun managed to take a dig at the Philharmonic’s conductor Lorin Maazel’s politics and art: Maazel is “politically naïve” and he will enjoy an audience where an audience has to applaud on command. Ouch!

Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president, has tried his best to steer a clear and honest approach to the issues, including helping one of the orchestra’s members overcome her hesitation as her parents had suffered from the 1948 Korean divide. Mehta noted the encouragement of the US State Department and the involvement of all the orchestra’s constituents in bringing this potentially historic visit to fruition.

But then, philharmonic maestro Lorin Maazel put down his baton and opened his mouth. As posted on Fest News, having conducted music in Salazar’s Portugal, Brezhnev’s Russia, and Franco’s Spain, Maazel informed the conservative apparatchiks:

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks, should they? …Is our standing as a country “” the United States “” is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated? 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.

Well, that was helpful.

The problem, though, is not what Maazel thinks. The problem is when anyone — from the highest realms of government to the lowest art critic — wants to control the export or access to culture. Of course, no one should be ignorant enough to think that the North Korean government will open the concert hall and the orchestra to anyone who has a yearning to hear great music and to meet great artists. Still, adopting a totalitarian approach to culture is hardly the best way to counter totalitarianism.

Don’t they remember ping-pong diplomacy? Have the conservatives abandoned Nixon, as well?

If the fear is to provide legitimacy to Kim Jong Il, all parties might agree to extend the cultural diplomacy by bringing along dvds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police.

Mehta noted that music can unite people. Politicians can divide people. History is on Mehta’s side.

- Bill Reichblum

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One Response to “Two Days that Shake the World”

  1. Bill
    February 20th, 2008 17:14

    Lorin Maazel answers his critics, especially those from the Wall Street Journal, here in the Wall Street Journal:

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