DMZ concert not quite a success, but not a failure
But at 3 p.m. on Saturday, when three chartered buses filled with 70 musicians were supposed to depart from the Seoul Arts Center, only 13 musicians and a conductor had arrived with a handful of staff and supporters, filling just one bus. Cancelling two of the buses, the downsized version of the Lindenbaum Project Orchestra departed for the JSA, holding out hope that the North Koreans would show up.
They had already faced frustration and discouragement, but violinist Won Hyung-joon boarded the bus, hoping that all his efforts over the past seven years might pay off.
After being inspired by the legendary conductor Daniel Barenboim, who founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra composed of young musicians from conflicting countries in the Middle East in hopes of promoting peace, Won established the Lindenbaum Music Company in 2009. Since then, he has been working ceaselessly to bring harmony to the two Koreas through music.
Holding in his hands the official letters from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Unification and the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission that said they would allow the orchestra to perform at the JSA inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) only if the North Korean choir appears at the JSA, Won led the group on a journey that he’d nearly given up.
Prior to Saturday’s adventure, the Lindenbaum Orchestra held a concert on the lawn in front of Dongnimmun (Independence) Gate in central Seoul at 7 p.m. on Aug. 13. More than 70 musicians from diverse backgrounds came together for the concert, ranging from professors of music to elementary school students. Joined by a group choir, about 100 musicians performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral,” under the baton of Chung Chi-yong, the new artistic director of the Incheon Philharmonic Orchestra, followed by an orchestral version of “Arirang” composed by North Korean composer Choi Sung-hwan, under the baton of Antoine Marguier, conductor and a music director of the United Nations Orchestra. It was the same program the orchestra planned to perform at the JSA.
The concert ended successfully. But that night, Won informed the musicians that they wouldn’t be going to the JSA on Saturday.
“As you know, the situation isn’t good,” Won said on the bus on the way to the border on Saturday. He was referring to the land mines that injured two South Korean soldiers inside the DMZ earlier this month, which the South Korean government concluded were planted by the North. In retaliation, the South Korean government announced they would resume broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda messages, and on Saturday morning, North Korea threatened to attack the loudspeakers used to play messages across the border.
In this escalating situation, Won believed that it was time for him to give up.
“Honestly, the musicians didn’t seem to have the conviction, and the situation didn’t seem to help us, so I told the musicians Thursday night that we shouldn’t do the concert on Saturday,” said Won. But that evening, he received an email from a Swiss-German flutist who had participated in the project.
Philipp Jundt, a professor at the German School of Music, Weimar, visited Seoul to participate in the Lindenbaum Project. He had been living in Seoul to teach flute at Kangnam University for six-month stretches over the past seven years as part of his university’s exchange program. When Won announced that the group would not perform on Saturday, Jundt decided to send an email to all its members.
“In Germany, the unification of the two countries started with collaborations of arts, literature, philosophy, sports and most importantly by small, unimportant events and exchange of ideas,” Jundt continued. “There was no big show, where the East and West Germans decided to be one again. There was a cumulation of small steps, of people who decided that one afternoon of their lives should be dedicated to reunite. Arts projects where followed by political actions, which finally broke down the wall.”
Also mentioning the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Jundt said that the project had gotten off to a difficult start as well, and carefully asked the South Korean musicians to reconsider holding the concert despite the circumstances.
“When we agreed to be part of this project, it must have been obvious to all of us that the chance of the North Korean choir showing up would be quite small. However, the size of the meaning does not decrease much, whether we play at the DMZ, at the entry of the DMZ or in front of the Ministry in Seoul. If Lindenbaum performs with half an orchestra at any place, let it be a highway restaurant on the way to the DMZ, … which might bring the orchestra every year closer to its original goal of forming an orchestra of musicians from the North and South. It is people like us, who opened Germany, people who took small, seemingly insignificant steps,” he wrote.
Following the email from Jundt, Won said that maestro Marguier kept urging him to give the Liberation Day concert a try.
“Honestly, my first thought was that he keeps on telling me to try because he wants an opportunity to conduct a joint orchestra,” Won said. “But he asked me, what would it take to gather the North and South Korean musicians together? And I said jokingly that if world-renowned South Korean maestro Chung Myung-whun conducts, maybe it will work. Then he really tried calling the manager of maestro Chung. Then I realized why he is really here. … I mean, he doesn’t get paid and we didn’t even sign any contracts. But he came when I asked for help because he cared for the two Koreas.”
“I was embarrassed,” Won said. “I am a South Korean and I gave up because I assumed the North Korean choir would not come down, and this would not be a meaningful event. But these people who told me we should continue were foreigners. And they saw this as just another step, not a failure. So I quickly sent out an email that night to all the members that we will meet up at 3 p.m. on Saturday and leave for the JSA as planned.”
Inside the bus, Marguier was busy tweaking the score for “Arirang” for the 13 musicians who turned up: one violin, one flute, one piccolo, six cellos, one clarinet, two horns and one tuba.
“I tried to distribute the instruments we have now,” Marguier said. “Luckily, we have six cellos, so two can play the cello part, and the others can play the missing parts like one can play viola and so on. We’ll see how it goes.”
After about an hour and a half, the bus pulled up at the checkpoint at the Unification Bridge in Paju, Gyeonggi. But whether the North Korean choir was coming was not even the main issue at this point: The soldiers there were not even aware the Lindenbaum Orchestra was coming. They said they were not notified of any South Korean cultural events at the JSA.
Won showed the soldiers the official letters, messages and emails, trying to convince them that they should be allowed through, or at least be permitted to hold the concert at the end of the bridge, for which the Unification Ministry had given permission. But the stack of official documents seemed to have no power at the checkpoint. Won tried calling the government officials he had been in contact with for the past few months, but nobody answered their phones.
Finally, about an hour and a half later, a soldier in charge of the checkpoint got on the bus and announced he had received an official answer from the Commander of the First Army: The orchestra would not be allowed to play inside the JSA or at the bridge.
With both Plan A and Plan B out the window, Won had to quickly find a new location for the concert, or else give up and go home.
Park Han-ho, who was traveling with the group as a supporter, managed to get permission to use a small outdoor stage in front of the Seokjangri Art Museum in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi, which is also the venue for the annual DMZ Festival organized by local artists. Park was an artistic director for the festival last year.
It had been a long, bumpy journey and no North Koreans were present, but the maestro finally raised his arms at 9 p.m. to lead the 13-member orchestra in playing “Arirang,” on a stage with a backdrop made of speakers that were used for previous anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts a decade ago.
The concert lasted less than 20 minutes, but the tune of “Arirang” resonated loudly across the park, causing campers in the caravan site next door to pop their heads out of their cars in curiosity.
“I thank the musicians here today,” Won said afterward. “We are one step closer to peace and harmony through music. Although we can’t see it, I know that what we’ve done here today will be known throughout our society and the world when it becomes visible.”
On the way back to Seoul, however, Won expressed sorrow for what had happened that day. “All I wanted to do was have a peaceful concert with North Koreans,” he said. “But it’s so difficult. The Korean governments say we should cooperate and hold cultural events, but I guess they want to do it themselves and don’t want any private groups to interfere.”
The Lindenbaum Music Company is not alone in trying to organize a joint concert with North Korea. The Seoul National University of Arts (KARTS) has also been trying since the beginning of this year to hold a joint orchestral concert among young musicians along the DMZ for the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day. It, too, did not happen.
Through the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, KARTS said it has been contacting the Kim Won Gyun University of Music and Dance in Pyongyang since early this year to request a joint concert.
“They said they’ll reply to us,” said Choi Jun-ho, an official from KARTS. “But we didn’t hear from them afterward.”
“When we first told the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation our plan, they said it sounds possible since the suggestion is being made on a private level,” Choi said. “So we were optimistic at first, but I guess it’s not as easy as we think.” Although the plan was not successful, the school still carried out three cultural performances along the DMZ, starting from the Ganghwa Peace Observatory located in the northern area of the Civilian Passage Restriction Line, overlooking the North’s Ryesong River and Mount Songak on Aug. 9, followed by two more at the Goseong Unification Observatory on Aug. 12 and the Cheorwon Korean Workers’ Party Headquarters in Gangwon on Aug. 14. KARTS students staged various performances, including a comical play of a traditional wedding ceremony where the husband does not turn up. By doing so, the school said it wanted to “indirectly satirize the current situation of the divided Koreas in time of celebration.”
Although the school failed to hold a joint concert with North Korean music students this year, Kim Bong-ryol, president of KARTS, said that the school will continue to reach out to the North through the arts.
“The school has been interested in exchanges between the North and South since 10 years ago,” Kim said. “We couldn’t make it this year for the 70th anniversary. But what if it’s the 71st or the 72nd? What’s important is that we continue to knock on the door until they open up.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]