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 Recording of the Week  Americans in Pyongyang

North Korea doesn’t often come up on classical music radar but it did earlier this year when the New York Philharmonic made an historic 48-hour trip to North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. It is a remarkable story and as you can imagine took many months of intensive preparation and negotiations before it could happen. Many of the musicians initially had concerns and doubts when the idea was first put to them (not surprising considering that it is one of the most inaccessible countries in the world, a country that consistently violates human rights and that had been categorised by George Bush as a key member in the 'axis of evil').

Group photo at the airport
Group photo at the airport

However, the trip went ahead and turned out to be a huge success, with the centrepiece being the concert. It was broadcast live on North Korean TV and radio (a condition insisted on by the New York Philharmonic), and has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Despite the lack of diplomatic ties, the orchestra played both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem, while the two nations' flags flanked the stage. Conductor Lorin Maazel introduced each piece in the concert using both humour and the odd Korean phrase and, while the audience seem to sit there rather cold much of the time, by the end it is clear that they have both enjoyed it and very much joined in with what turned out to be a remarkable experience for all.

When talking about George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" Maazel suggested that someday a composer might write a song titled "Americans in Pyongyang” to which the audience clapped enthusiastically. The most heart-warming moments though come at the very end when the orchestra played 'Arirang', a lilting folk song emblematic of both the North and South Korean people, accompanied by more than a few misty-eyed members amongst the audience. Then, after a sustained standing ovation, as the orchestra reluctantly started to leave the stage, the audience began to wave to them, and the Orchestra waved back. You see both smiles and tears and you can’t help but be emotionally moved by it.

I think it is fantastic how music can achieve things that politicians can’t and that people from completely different cultures and countries can be brought a little closer to each other by virtue of music. The accompanying documentary shows some of the other events that took place during the visit, as well as giving a clue to what life is really like in North Korea. Both fascinating and enjoyable, this comes warmly recommended.

The Pyongyang Concert (and Documentary) - Blu-ray

New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel

Blu-ray offers much improved picture and sound quality, but you must have a Nlu-ray player to watch this disc as it will not work on a normal DVD player.

Available Format: Blu-ray