Vienna trains North Korean orchestra conductors…

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
Washington Post
Anne Midgette
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; Page C04


2 Responses to “Vienna trains North Korean orchestra conductors…”

  1. Lorin Maazel Ponders North Korea Trip, Classical Girls, China

    Interview by Kathleen Campion

    March 15 (Bloomberg) — When Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, ventured to North Korea late last month with the orchestra, he provoked both praise and censure for entertaining a notoriously repressive regime. I recently spoke with Maazel about the trip.

    Maazel: It was a very good decision, and it never worried me that we would be used. Used for what?

    Campion: Propaganda.

    Maazel: The reason they opened their doors is that there is a recognition in some part of the government, starting at the very top, that the time has come to move on. It would never have happened had there not been a realization in high government circles in North Korea that they are in deep trouble and they have to come to a conclusion, they have to move forward.

    I think, in a way, it was alerting the populace that the party line had changed. Americans are no longer criminals and mad people and fanatic warmongers.

    Campion: I know you made efforts to assure that the Philharmonic’s performance would in fact be heard by the people to the extent possible. Did you ever get any feedback or any indication that that indeed happened?

    Maazel: Yes, the program was televised on North Korean television.

    Campion: But there isn’t much electricity. Did the little people ever get to hear anything?

    Maazel: Just a moment. It is a one-channel television, and instead of seeing our dear leader or the great leader, they saw on their black-and-white television sets an American orchestra playing classical music. And to answer your question, yes, people stopped me, just ordinary people. They said, “We heard the show, we saw the show, we loved it and we thought it was great.”

    All-Male Orchestra

    Campion: Some of the Koreans in the New York Philharmonic are women, whereas the Korean orchestra, as I understand it, that you rehearsed, was all-male there?

    Maazel: The one that I conducted was an all-male Korean Philharmonic, their national orchestra. I kept reading in various newspapers that there is no musical culture there, that no one has ever heard of orchestras, there is no concert-going public. Well, where did the symphony orchestra come from? You can’t put a top-flight group together like that out of nowhere.

    The government has been furthering classical music and theater and ballet and, for that matter, painting, the socialistic realism school, very actively, and also the sports. I was in Hong Kong just maybe 10 days before the visit to North Korea, and the first two winners of the Hong Kong Marathon were from North Korea.

    East German Example

    So very much like East Germany, there is a great deal of support for specific areas of activity, the arts and sports programs, for the purpose obviously of bringing “glory” to the regime.

    When the regime fades away, these elite cadres remain to the benefit of humanity at large. That certainly was the case in East Germany when I was there in West Berlin. I used to watch East German television because they had the best theater imaginable — wonderful theaters, government supported. They could rehearse for a month or two months or six months or a year and not worry about the box office…