Symphony reports from Pyongyang

Day #3

Symphony contributing writer Steve Smith accompanied the New York Philharmonic on its groundbreaking visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here’s Smith’s third and final report, as he attends a chamber- music concert by American and North Korean musicians and witnesses a rehearsal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea State Symphony Orchestra led by Lorin Maazel. The visitors left Pyongyang for Seoul on Wednesday, February 27. (Click here for photos from Day 3.)

Practically before the last notes of Tuesday night’s historic concert by the New York Philharmonic had faded, it was time to begin preparing to leave. Wednesday morning brought another lavish breakfast buffet, during which conversation remained celebratory. If a certain fatigue had set in, it seemed offset by continued high spirits and a congratulatory air.

Prior to departure, there were still a few more activities planned. Some travelers paid a visit to the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace. But for many of us, the morning’s destination (following a busy, somewhat manic checkout from the Yanggakdo Hotel) was the Moranbong Theater. Less palatial than the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, where the Philharmonic had played, this handsome, comfortable theater was the original site proposed for the concert, but was rejected for its relatively intimate size.

It proved ideal, however, for a performance that was in some ways every bit as meaningful as the previous evening’s main event. Four members of the Philharmonic—Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow; Associate Principal Violin, Second Violin Group, Lisa Kim; Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps; and Principal Cello Carter Brey—joined four counterparts from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea State Symphony Orchestra in an accomplished, affectionate account of Mendelssohn’s Octet. Their performance was warmly received by a sizeable audience.

Bassist Jon Deak took the opportunity to present a gift that was, as he put it, “in some way more precious than gold or diamonds”: Serenity, a composition by a participant in his Very Young Composers program, written in honor of North Korea’s children. “It is a beautiful, brief song from a child’s heart,” Deak told the audience. (My apologies to composer and readers alike for missing the name; I’ll track it down in time for the comprehensive article to come in Symphony magazine.) Performed by the eight assembled players, the gentle, poignant music seemed to shiver and sigh with quiet wonder.

Following a most efficient set change, the entire DPRK State Symphony Orchestra assembled for a rehearsal led by New York Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel. The works under examination were Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Maazel let the orchestra play at length during the Wagner, pausing midway through to fine-tune an exposed passage for winds and urge more expressiveness from the strings. Lacking the words to communicate his wishes, Maazel sometimes resorted to singing the lines. In both works the musicians played with technical accomplishment and a rich, warm sound—elements that will surely win admirers when the orchestra embarks upon its planned tour of England in the fall—and responded alertly to Maazel’s recommendations.

The rehearsal concluded, it was time at last to head back to the airport. No doubt the Philharmonic players and staff—and the journalists, too—were breathing sighs of relief as they boarded the Asiana jet for the trip to Seoul. But it seemed like virtually everyone took a moment to pause on the stairs into the plane and take one last, lingering glance back.

Click here for photos from Day 3.