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The Philharmonic Plays Pyongyang; Eric Clapton to Follow?

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

New York’s classical critic Justin Davidson, on this week’s historic North Korean concert and its aftermath:

Here’s a sentence we never thought we’d write: Eric Clapton will follow the trail to Pyongyang blazed by the New York Philharmonic. So pleased were Kim Jong-Il’s apparatchiks with the experience of importing a Western cultural brand name that no sooner had they stopped applauding the Philharmonic than they extended an invitation to Slowhand. Dvorák made the Axis of Evil safe for “Cocaine.” Or maybe the regime just confused classical music with classic rock.

The Clapton engagement would be the best possible outcome of the Philharmonic’s visit: To a giddy optimist it might suggest that a Western wind is starting to blow beneath the country’s closed doors. Many have invoked the Philharmonic’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1956, an event that precipitated the fall of Communism as efficiently as the U.S. embargo of Cuba destroyed Fidel Castro. Others might also think of Tom Stoppard’s musico-political play Rock ‘n’ Roll, which ends with the Rolling Stones playing Prague a mere 22 years after the Plastic People of the Universe rocked the Czech regime. The New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the Pyongyang concert was a step on the road to reconciliation. Maybe he’s right — perhaps if, a generation from now, North Korea has refrained from obliterating civilization with nuclear missiles, some credit will go to Maazel and the Philharmonic.

The orchestra also deserves praise for insisting that the concert be broadcast live on television and radio, so as to reach beyond the veil of propaganda. And yet at this distance — or from the isolation of the press junket that accompanied the orchestra — it’s hard to know what effect the broadcast had on a country that is barely electrified. A Times photographer in search of the real North Korea pointed a camera out the bus window and took a picture of a woman collecting firewood near the airport. Was she primed to have her world rocked by Dvorák? Who knows? Music can change lives, but only if they’re ready to be changed.

We suspect that the most subversive sounds to be beamed from the hall into that gray country were the jaunty, buoyant rhythms of “American in Paris,” because they brim with a resource that seems scarce in North Korea: joy. To citizens of that cloistered country it must have seemed profoundly, thrillingly weird to hear a government-imported form of entertainment buzzing with such insouciant tunes and urbane energy. Gershwin makes Western imperialism sound like a lot of fun. Which suggests that maybe turning to Clapton, with his ravaged voice and weary passions, was actually a pretty safe choice to follow the Philharmonic. Now if Shakira brought her truth-telling hips to Pyongyang, that might really bring the people out into the streets. —Justin Davidson

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The Philharmonic Plays Pyongyang; Eric Clapton to Follow?