This week that Washington Post (hat tip Dr. Petrov)published an article which took a unique position on the NY Phil’s performance. Rather than comment on whether the event was diplomatically significant, or whether it legitimized a regime with a poor human rights record, the columnist denounced it for having a “tinge of benevolent didacticism”…before pointing out that North Korea has no shortage of classically-trained, quality orchestra conductors. In fact, for years they have been sending students to Vienna:
Asia is a hotbed of Western classical music. This passion has evidently not bypassed North Korea. Much of the West harbors images of North Koreans as either wealthy soldiers or starving peasants. But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.
According to Mark Stringer, the conductor who leads the class, the North Korean government decides, every few years, that it is time to train a new crop of elite young conductors. In the early 2000s — a few years before Stringer took over in 2005 — the government’s choice fell on this Vienna school. There were considerable bureaucratic hurdles to overcome; North Korean representatives insisted on sitting in on auditions, and had a hard time understanding why not all of their handpicked candidates were accepted by the school. But they were also paying attention.
“The next batch,” Stringer said, “knew what to expect. They were so prepared they could nail every single bit of our ferociously difficult entrance exam.”
The students also do not fulfill anyone’s expectations of politically guarded wards of the state. “They have a completely normal experience,” Stringer says. “Once they’re in the walls of the school, politics disappear. There is no breathing down our necks from the North Korean officials.” He describes the students as generally more open, easygoing and funny than their South Korean counterparts.
“Were they to be allowed to stay in the West,” he says, “a number of the ones I’ve seen would have a serious chance of a prominent international career. It’s phenomenal what they come to Vienna knowing how to do.”
UPDATE email from a reader:
I also visited that performance of the joint North-South Korean student’s orchestra at Vienna Music Universtity (and took a video of this performance).
Contrary to the Washington Post article the ambassadors were not attending the performance, but other staff of the respective embassies [were]. I don’t know, if they drank beer together, but anyhow, when arriving at the hall before performance the consuls (not ambassadors) greeted themselves nicely.
Very interesting the seating arrangement of the South and North Korean spectators in this student concert. The men (Korean, North an[d] south) in rows 2-4, the women in rows 5-6 and the students behind. (very Confucian …) It was amazing to see how many North Koreans must be living here in Vienna.
In Vienna, there are not only North Korean conductor students, but also piano, violin, biology, architecture or English students. The same in Germany, Italy and maybe France and other countries.
The full article can be read here:
The N.Y. Philharmonic in North Korea: Symbology and the Music
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; Page C04