LITTLE ROCK — “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” wrote dramatist and poet William Congreve three centuries ago.
Music also can help bridge wide political gulfs.
Few international tensions are tenser right now than the one between the United States and North Korea. But none of this long-standing antipathy was an issue when conductors from Arkansas and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea met in a Chinese concert hall this spring.
Israel Getzov, music director ofthe Conway Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Fujian Province Symphony Orchestra, was in the city of Fuzhou in late May. He was rehearsing with the orchestra for a program that featured Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with soloist Jue Wang and the Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka.
“During the middle of one of my rehearsals,” Getzov says, “they said to me, ‘Hey, there’s this North Korean orchestra in town, they’re with this opera, can they come watch?’ And I said, ‘Sure, terrific, I’d love to meet them; how interesting.’”
The Pibada Opera Company, one of the premier ensembles in North Korea, was touring China with a production of Hong Lou Meng, or A Dream of Red Mansions, a North Korean musical adaptation of an 18th-century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin that is one of the four most famous works of Chinese classical literature.
The opera describes the life and fortunes of a large feudal family, focusing on a tragic Romeo and Juliet-like love story between a descendant of the clan and two of his cousins.
The company, which takes its name from another North Korean opera, which means “Sea of Blood,” was scheduled to perform the opera in thesame concert hall June 2.
“We were on a break and preparing to start up again,” Getzov recounts, “and I heard one of [the musicians] say, ‘Oh, here come the North Koreans.’”
The entire 60-member opera company orchestra had entered the hall, “and the Chinese [officials] didn’t want me to know; they tried to trick me because they knew I would be nervous about it.”
“And I was very nervous and confused while I was conducting. Everybody was finding out about this submarine thing [the sinking of a South Korean sub by the North Koreans]. It was a very tense period.”
While the orchestra’s Chinese conductor was on the podium rehearsing Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Getzov went out into the audience and sat a few seats away from the North Korean musicians.
“The conductor was sitting in the front row, and the [orchestra] musicians were three rows behind him. I asked my Chinese colleagues, ‘Can I go talk to him?’ ‘No, no, no, please do not attempt to talk to them - it could be dangerous.’”
The Chinese officials’ concern was apparently not for him but for the North Koreans - talking to an American might bring them afoul of their official minders, Getzov says.
He was a little surprised but pleased to receive a personal invitation from the North Korean government officials traveling with the company toattend the Red Mansions performance later that week.
“It’s not Wagner and Mozart, but it wasn’t too weird,” he says. “It was pretty straightforward, more like a pop-sy Korean opera, very accessible, something that communists would write for you to listen to for four hours that you would enjoy.
“Actually, it was beautiful. The music was amazing and their performance was unbelievable.
“Even though I couldn’t understand the Korean they were singing in or the Chinese subtitles, you didn’t need to know.There was a guy and a bunch of girls courting him, and one of them wasn’t successful and she got sick and she died for about 25 minutes, singing all the time, and it was very moving and very beautiful.”
At intermission, Getzov received another invitation, to meet with conductor Chung In-Bae.
“We used two translators: one from Korean to Chinese, and another from Chinese to English,” Getzov explains. “We talked about how music can cross cultural barriers, and my assessment of their performance.
“We actually exchanged contact information - no email addresses, of course. And he gave me gifts: a map of Pyongyang and a view-book of North Korea including pictures of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il touring industrial facilities and scenes of smiling factory workers enjoying daily life.
“He was the one who said,‘I hope that in the future there will be a time when we can make music together.’”
This was not the first exercise in musical diplomacy, even between the United States and North Korea. The New York Philharmonic was warmly greeted in the capital Pyongyang in February 2008.
And the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour of the People’s Republic of China broke a lot of diplomatic ice at a time when President Richard Nixon was trying to warm relations between the United States and “Red China.”
“It was kind of special,” Getzov says. “What I took away from it is that people are people, and these people are too busy making music to be building any sort of weapon. All that they really desired was to share their art with me, and share the emotion and the music that they worked on for so long.
“I know they probably have political disagreements, that their lives must be very, very different from mine, more than I can even imagine. It was very special to have the sort of forbidden opportunity to get to interact with these people, and only through those opportunities do we have a chance of lessening tensions, on a people-to-people basis as opposed to government-to-government basis.”