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Building Bridges

Mike Lawson • Archives • March 13, 2008

It seems that musicians have a unique knack for building diplomatic bridges where politicians often fall short. Perhaps it is the collaborative spirit of music making, the universality of music, or a particular characteristic of people who become musicians that cultivates this distinctive ability. In any case, the New York Philharmonic’s recent trip to the communist dictatorship of North Korea graphically showed how musicians could find common ground for collaboration and diplomacy.

One of the compelling aspects of the historic concert in North Korea, according to an Associated Press report on Feb. 27, was the pure synergy that developed among four Philharmonic musicians and four North Korean players who performed Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, virtually without mistakes and without prior rehearsal. The fact that people from vastly disparate nations, backgrounds, cultures, and education could sit down and perform a difficult piece of music without any prior rehearsal was a wonderful representation of how people, specifically musicians, can play a role in creating a better world.

The Philharmonic also made an especially touching gesture when they performed folk themes from the Korean tune, “Arirang.” Many of us would quickly recognize this tune as it is represented in the concert band arrangement “Variations on a Korean Folk Song” by John Barnes Chance. This piece stirred the emotions of the performers and the audience and resulted in a standing ovation.

Certainly there certainly is a dark side to this endeavor in that North Korea has one of the worst records of human rights abuses of any country on the planet as well as a frightening military stance toward its neighbors in Asia and beyond. This led some musicians and others to protest this concert, yet the alternative of not performing would only serve to dim the outlook for future cooperation.

One concert is certainly not going to bring two vastly different governments together, but the visit’s media coverage, goodwill, and demonstration of common ground definitely lighted the way to the possibility of greater collaboration in the future. The only shame would be if we didn’t pursue the next step in this process by having a North Korean musical ensemble come and perform in the United States. Beyond that gesture, if each head of state mandated a Minister of the Arts as a diplomatic position, it could go a long way in building better relationships around the world.

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