In Memoriam: Lorin Maazel recently died (July 13, 2014) at age 84. He conducted and led many of the world's most famous symphony orchestras, published more than 300 classical recordings, and earned 10 Grand Prix du Disque awards. Perhaps his most singular and unusual achievement was his appearance in 2008 with the New York Philharmonic at a concert in North Korea at the request of the Communist Government of that country. We happen to have a most interesting HDVD title about that appearance called The Pyongyang Concert. This title has been, I fear, neglected in recent years. So in honor of Maazel, I thought I should re-review The Pyongyang Concert and provide some screen shots.
The concert in Pyongyang was played and recorded on February 26, 2008. The program was:
1. National Anthem of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or Wongyun's Aegukka
2. The Star-Spangled Banner
3. Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III
4. Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)
5. Gershwin An American in Paris
6. Bizet Farandole from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2
7. Bernstein Candide: Overture
8. Arirang, a Korean folksong popular in both North and South Korea
The concert video was directed for TV by Michael Beyer. The music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sampling (probably state-of-the-art considering the traveling required) and rendered in PCM 5.1 sound. Still, I doubt the concert would have been released as a recording based on the musical performance alone. The program is rather odd, is afflicted with a brutal case of DVDitis, and is mostly of historical rather than musical interest.
The heart of this title is the unique and impressive documentary called Americans in Pyongyang, directed Ayelet Heller. The documentary was filmed in HDTV and has Dolby Digital stereo sound. I consider the documentary to be the real story in this title. It shows all the work done by Maazel, Zarin Mehta, and the musicians and back-stage members of the New York Philharmonic to make this outreach to the people of North Korea. The concert to me is a bonus extra.
This title was produced by Paul Smaczny. He combines the vision of an artist, the wisdom of a philosopher, and the killer instincts of a reporter to help give us what still may have the potential to be the most significant entertainment video ever made. We don't know exactly why the North Koreans asked for this concert. But the reason the New Yorkers went is clearly explained: It might do some good!
The disc was released in 2008. Grade: A for the documentary. I decided not to review or grade the the concert recording itself. It does no harm. You might want to buy the disc for it's Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) or some of the shorter numbers.
Now for some screenshots. We start by crossing the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th Parallel. Don't go for a walk in the woods!
A huge convoy of trucks carried all the gear needed to record and televise the concert and make the documentary. The orchestra arrived later at the Pyongyang Airport in a 747:
Everywhere you would see the two portraits below. North Korea is history's only Communist nation where leadership of the county is inherited across generations. "Kim" is a common family name in Korea. On the left is Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the first Communist dictator of North Korea, whom I call "Kim 1." On the right is Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), the son of Kim 1, whom I call "Kim 2." Kim 2 was the dictator from about 1994 to 2011.
The Pyongyang Concert took place in 2008 while Kim 2 was in power. The thought was then afoot that the concert might provide a breakthrough in improving relations between the US and North Korea. This was not to happen, at least not soon. My guess is that Kim 2 started having health problems, which led to an all-consuming power struggle within the inner circle. After the death of Kim 2 in 2011, his son Kim Jong-um ("Kim 3") became the successor dictator. At this writing in 2014, it appears relations between North Korea and the US have become worse, not better. (Kim 3's most dramatic action so far was to have an uncle executed for treason. He also had some young women entertainers executed for making pornography.)
This building with the large portrait of Kim 1 is, I surmise, the headquarters of the North Korean Communist Party. If you know for sure what the building is, please let me know:
The documentary has voice overs in English, for which there are no subtitles. So I made my screenshots with German subtitles. Here is a view from the hotel where the New York Philharmonic stayed. After unpacking, many members of the band decided to go for a walk. No one stopped them from leaving the hotel. "It seemed that nobody thought that we might do this." But after the musicians walked a few blocks, police appeared to shoo them back to the hotel. After that, each member of the orchestra was accompanied by an English-speaking escort: