Rehearsal, Propaganda, Unity: Documenting the DPRK Unhasu Orchestra’s Performance in Paris

By | March 24, 2012 | No Comments

Having analyzed the meaning of the Sea of Blood Opera Troupe’s three-month tour across China, Performing Arts Analyst Jimin Lee returns to with a multivalent examination of the Unhasu Orchestra’s March 14 performance in Paris.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief 

Haegum (Korean 4-string fiddle) player Nam Un Ha, age 25, prepares for her Paris debut | Image via Demotix, click image for gallery

Rehearsal, Propaganda, Unity: Documenting the DPRK Unhasu Orchestra’s Performance in Paris

by Jimin Lee

On March 9, when most other North Koreans were in the middle of an explosive series of anti-Li Myung Bak rallies, the members of the Unhasu Orchestra loaded an airplane at Sunan airport and flew to Paris en route to a concert on March 14 with the Radio Symphony of France.

This event has generated ongoing speculation of various kinds, including the question of it entails for North Korea’s diplomacy and the country’s possible cultural opening to South Korea or the United States.  This essay takes a three-pronged approach, focusing on the preparations for the trip, the ideological role in the DPRK of the Unhasu Orchestra, and the overtones of Korean unification at the concert itself.

Rehearsals in Pyongyang | The Unhasu Orchestra has several of its own conductors, but the second half of its concert in Paris – the joint part of the concert — was led by a South Korean conductor. Naturally rehearsals were needed, and on March 1, 2012, South Korean Orchestra Conductor Chung Myung-Whun returned from his second three-day visit to Pyongyang. Chung described the practice with North Korea’s Unhasu orchestra as “productive,” adding he found great pleasure in rehearsing with them.

Chung had made his first visit to Pyongyang in September 2011, and returned with an agreement to form an orchestra made up of musicians from North and South Korea. The conductor’s goal was to attempt a joint-Korean Beethoven Ninth Symphony in Pyongyang, but seemed glad to be working with Unhasu in the current capacity, recognizing that his experience of leading a North Korean orchestra — and his connection with North Korea’s cultural bureaucracy — could ultimately lead to an implementation of his earlier idea.

Chung Myung-Hwon, right, with "Advisor to Korean Traditional Music Institute" (actually Alternate Member of WPK Central Committee) Kwon Hyok Bong in Pyongyang, February 2012.

The Orchestra’s Leading Role in the Propagation of Kimist Hagiography |  While Maestro Chung was busy lining up a performance of Brahms for the orchestra, the North Korean orchestra was very busily playing music that accorded with the grandiose needs of the Kim family.  The DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong Un, attended the Unhasu Orchestra’s signature concert “The Hearts Following the Sun” for  the 70th birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il on February 17th in 2012. In KCNA’s description,

Kim Jong Un warmly acknowledged the enthusiastic cheers of the performers and audience. He highly appreciated their successful performance, expressing great satisfaction over the splendid performance as it is distinct in its ideological and thematic stand and fully reflected the ardent aspiration and desire, firm pledge and readiness of the Korean people.
He noted it was a wonderful performance that may instill strength and courage into the service personnel and people of the DPRK accelerating the advance for a great revolutionary surge with reverence for Kim Jong Il. He expressed expectation and conviction that the creators and artistes of the orchestra would encourage the service personnel and people of the DPRK through their dynamic art creation and performing activities.

Having played a big New Year’s concert, the orchestra took the huge Kim Jong Il cantata, “The Cause of the Sun Will Be Immortal,” on the road to the distant cities of in Huichon (Jagang Province) and in Hamhung (South Hamgyong Province) in the DPRK from January 17th to 23rd.

Naturally, the KCNA reports emphasized that many officials of the party and power bodies and working people’s organizations of Jangang Province, and officials and workers of the industrial establishments in the province including the Huichon Ryonha General Machinery Plant and the Huichon Precision Machine Plant enjoyed the concert.

Unhasu Orchestra takes the Kim Jong Il Cantata on the Road, with a reduced chorus, to Huichon, where the backdrop image is of the northeast spa-revolutionary history town of Samjiyeon near Mount Paektu.

Ideology and Repertoire Analysis |  The critics have described the performers sang high praises of their previous leader Kim Jong Il “with deep yearning for him who made the devoted life-long service for the country and the people,” presenting “a concert rich in its ideological contents by showing their unbounded yearning and reverence of the service personnel and the people for Kim Jong Il.” The KCNA source further described that the performers worshiped Kim Jong Il “as someone who laid an eternal foundation for the prosperity of the country and its people’s happiness, undergoing for decades all sorts of sufferings that nobody else in this world has ever experienced.” Among the performances were the female trio and chorus “Cantata to Comrade Kim Jong Il”, female trio and pangchang “Song of Best Wishes” and the Kimist chorus “His Life.” Lest the point be missed, during the performances the audience observed a moment’s silence in memory of Kim Jong Il.

Quotes from North Korean state media provide a sense of the desired ambiance, but further analysis is needed. One of the lead singers at the New Year’s Concert fixes her static gaze in the audience and raises an arm slightly in front of her. Her facial expression is aligned with her lyrics, pulse, concept, rhythm and feeling. It is hard to discern if the performance comes from her deep connection with Kim Jong Il.

One of Unhasu Orchestra’s performance videos from the year of 2011 shows female sextet singers dressed in HanBok, Korean traditional clothing, singing “Socialism is Good”, a Chinese song composed in 1958. While such a number may assure the members of the Chinese Embassy analyzing the event, it also leaves a question of how the musicians manage to perform if they do not believe in what they sing on the stage.

Such “seeing difficulties” inevitably occur when watching the DPRK’s performances. After understanding their cultural diplomacy with China, the Unhasu’s performances become newly problematic, and thus newly productive for performing analysis.

These performances do impact the audience when renewing their pledge to devote themselves to the constructing their nation.  The communication through movement and music is powerful. The strength of movement and dance to evoke memories is a crucial factor in spreading messages. The performers’ music, massive orchestra, and their physical movements or expressions stimulate or sublimate a range of feelings and are elicited for coping with problematic aspects of their social involvement with their regime. The responses on the part of the observers reinforce the pursuit of performance as art of political persuasion or, in this case, consolidation.

Echoes of Korean Unity in Paris |  As anyone who has read Edward Said’s large corpus of concert reviews and musicological essays knows, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of young musicians from Israel and Palestine, has been presenting concerts to bring people from across the political divide in the Middle East. The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, hopes that music would heal and help to bring understanding and tolerance of different beliefs and cultures.

Exhibiting much the same hope for unity and reconciliation, North Korea’s Unhasu Orchestra and Radio France Philharmonic have performed a landmark Paris concert on March 14th at the Salle Pleyel music hall, in a diplomatic effort celebrating that music transcends borders.

The tensions between North Korea and the international community have remained strong even after the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in December and Pyongyang deciding to suspend its uranium enrichment program in return for US food aid; however, viewed through the prism of DPRK-French relations, this collaboration in Paris had been, in many ways, in progress for the last 30 years. The source reports that finally last fall a French cooperation office was set up in Pyongyang to act in the cultural and humanitarian fields.

While Korean-French relations might have been part of the fabric, the participants in the concert were also thinking about Korean unity.  As Conductor Chung Myong-Hwun said in an interview with Channelnewsasia,  he had got to know another part of his “family” – North Korean musicians of the Unhasu Orchestra who had come to play with his “French family” from Radio France. He continued, “There are two Koreas politically. But humanly speaking, we’re a family,” Chung declared, adding that “music is bigger than borders.” He also commented, “For practically all Koreans, outside the world of politics, there are not two Koreas, there’s only one country, a family divided…I don’t know a single Korean who doesn’t want at least a rapprochement between the two Koreas, a normal situation, if not reunification.”

In line with the maestro’s sentiments, and certainly the North Korean orchestra higher-ups, at the end of the concert the ensemble of musicians treated the audience to a special encore – “Arirang”, a song beloved by Koreans. Chung reflected on the performance during his Korean-language interview with Yonhap News:

“Arirang has been one of the most favored and well-known songs since Korea was divided into two. We have prepared this performance very well and managed the human relations perfectly. It can’t be more successful than this. [아리랑은 우리나라가 갈라지기 전부터 국민들이 제일 잘 알고 제일 사랑하는 노래 이기 때문에 선곡했습니다. 오늘 공연은 음악적으로 준비를 잘했고 인간적으로도 완벽했기 때문에 성공적이지 않을 수가 없었습니다.]”
The North Korean solo violinist, Moon Kyung Jin, flashed back on the performance during his interview with South Korea broadcast, “ I was about to burst into tears when playing ‘Arirang’. Not only the audiences but the musicians were emotionally overwhelmed…[아리랑’을 연주할 때 많은 눈물이 나오는 걸 겨우 참고 했다. (관객뿐 아니라) 연 주하는 우리가 더 감동스럽고⋯]”

It is regretful for South Korea in that North Korean orchestra exchanged its significant cultural diplomatic effort with France, not South Korea. One of the local French audiences commented during her interview with South Korea broadcast, “ I have experienced a different kind of music tonight. I hope the North and the South would get along together through the continuous cultural exchanges in the future. [새로운 음악을 경험하게 됐다. 앞으로 남북한이 음악으로 가까워지기를 바란다.] ”

After the success of the recent show, the maestro, Chun Myong Whun’s next challenge will be to foster a joint performance of musicians from both Koreas before the end of the year, a sentiment with which these South Korean residents who attended and blogged the performance will agree.

No Comments

  1. in a diplomatic effort celebrating that music transcends borders – the link within this text leads nowhere.

  2. Chung Myung-Whun is the musical director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. KCNA managed to avoid any mention of him in their report of the concert, but they did say that “the music director of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra of France” (no name given) was present when the head of the Unhasu Orchestra met the head of Radio France.

  3. So much for his efforts for inter-Korean reconciliation! At least in the short term…Thanks for noting that, Gag.

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