[Outlook]Tears for ‘Arirang’

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[Outlook]Tears for ‘Arirang’

A Chinese saying goes that Zhuge Liang, even after his death, scared away Sima Yi. During the New York Philharmonic’s concert in Pyongyang on Feb. 26, the late Leonard Bernstein briefly “conducted” the orchestra, a very unusual scene indeed. Before playing Bernstein’s “Candide” overture for an encore, Lorin Maazel, the musical director of the orchestra, asked the audience to imagine that Bernstein had come back to life and was on the stage.
Maazel then moved away from center stage and said, “Mr. Bernstein, please,” in the Korean phrase that he adopted for the concert. The podium was empty, of course, but the music started at a signal.
Why do that when Maazel himself could conduct the music? Why leave the stage conductorless and put the imaginary Bernstein in charge? It was probably in order to evoke Bernstein’s 1959 tour of the Soviet Union, when he played in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. That mission was a thaw in the ice of the Cold War. Maazel likely hoped that the Pyongyang concert would have the same effect.
The U.S. flag was also on the stage of the East Pyongyang Grand Theater in the only country that is still living in the Cold War era. The national anthem of the United States, the country that has been an enemy of North Korea for six decades, was played at the concert. The audience of Pyongyang residents stood for the U.S. national anthem. These might be signals of changes that will eventually make the conductor’s dream come true.
Following the anthems of both countries, the Prelude to Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” was played. The next piece after the prelude was not played at the concert, but in the opera, the prelude is followed by the wedding between Elsa and Lohengrin, where the famous “Wedding March,” or “Bridal Chorus,” comes from. The selection of this piece was not without a reason.
The “New World” symphony was played afterwards. Antonin Dvorak, the composer of the symphony, was a Czech but this music carries with it the American spirit and atmosphere. Maazel then introduced George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” a jazz-classical work that swings with the rhythms of America. Before playing this music, the conductor said, “Someday a composer may write a work entitled, ‘An American in Pyongyang.’” It feels that an American in Pyongyang will soon be possible not only in music but also in reality.
Two days after the concert in Pyongyang, the New York Philharmonic held a concert at the Seoul Arts Center. The national anthems of South Korea and the United States were played before moving on to the classical music.
The concert started with Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture. The orchestra then played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Korean pianist Son Yeol-eum, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the Destiny Symphony, as the last work. Was it to suggest that Korea and the United States were destined to be allies?
The highlight of both concerts came at the end. The final encore was “Arirang Fantasy,” an orchestral piece that the North Korean composer Choi Sung-hwan wrote based on the Korean folk song “Arirang.”
As soon as the New York Philharmonic started playing the tune in Seoul, my eyes filled with tears. I leaned my head back to stop the tears from rolling but it didn’t help much.
Arirang also made the North Korean audience cry, as it did in Seoul. There was no difference between the tears of Pyongyang and the tears of Seoul. Regardless of regimes and ideologies, Arirang is a song for all Koreans. I felt thankful for the New York Philharmonic’s ability to bridge the South and the North and let us realize that we share the same tears.
Some might say that the U.S. orchestra’s concert doesn’t mean much when the North Korean nuclear issue remains unresolved. However, we should not forget that the spirit of Korea courses through the hearts of all Korean nationals, whether residing in the South or the North. Our shared tears confirm that fact.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chung Jin-hong
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