Skip to content
Culture & Religion

The New York Philharmonic: Accidental Diplomats

Plenty has been made of the transcendent, uniting force of music, particularly in the wake of Michael Jackson’s untimely death and the subsequent celebration of his international musical legacy. But an unexpected concert last year by the New York Philharmonic may have set the stage for a new era of diplomacy in which music replaces political posturing.

It began in February 2008 after the Philharmonic descended on North Korea for a concert in Pyongyang following an invitation from the North Korean government. The historic concert, which was broadcast live on state radio and TV, featured world-class performances of Gershwin and Dvorak and even the Star Spangled Banner. It’s pretty shocking, considering the iron-clad hold North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has held over all cultural expression, particularly music. The aspiring musician turned controversial world leader has spent the past 40 years dictating allowable music in his country, including an outright ban on “uproarious Western music.” Buoyed by the Philharmonic performance, Kim’s son, Kim Jong Chol, invited Eric Clapton to play Pyongyang, the first time in history a Western artist had been invited to play the country. It could potentially lead to a soothing in North Korean-Western relations following South Korean reports that the aging Kim Jong Il has pancreatic cancer.

Taking a page from the North Korean concert, another long-controversial administration has reached out to the New York Philharmonic. With some discussion of normalizing relations and Fidel Castro no longer effectively in power, the Philharmonic has recently received an invitation to perform in Havana, Cuba. Philharmonic officials have apparently since traveled to Havana to inspect its facilities. The concert would take place in October following the Philharmonic’s first-ever performance in Vietnam.

While the North Korea trip was considered controversial, a potential Cuba performance could be the next diplomatic step for a White House administration that has already eased sanctions on the country. Considering President Obama’s intentions of engaging controversial world leaders and an iPod that includes everything from Yo Yo Ma to Sheryl Crow, who knows how music could eventually provide some common ground in the international community?


Up Next