In a striking example of music’s potential to transcend boundaries between people, Korean conductor Chung Myung-whun is seeking to unite musicians from both North and South Korea under his baton this summer, despite mounting political tensions between the two nations. This gesture of musical brotherhood and fellowship is not the first of its kind for Chung, the music director of the Seoul Philharmonic and the founder of the 16-year-old Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, but it is certainly the most ambitious to date. The Asia Philharmonic Orchestra was founded under Chung’s leadership in an effort to bring together musicians from disparate Asian countries and create a greater sense of musical community among neighboring and nearby nations. This latest idea of Chung’s is far from a sure thing, but, if accomplished, it would be an almost unprecedented step forward in musical exchange between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly its southern neighbor.
Chung’s invitation to North Korean musicians came on the heels of his participation in yet another unique musical collaboration: last month, Chung led a joint performance of North Korean and French orchestras in Paris. North Korea’s Unhasu Orchestra and Radio France Philharmonic played at Paris’ Salle Pleyel music hall, and the performance drew great interest and attention for its symbolic significance, not only in bridging a rarely-breached gap between North Korea and the West but in bringing a nation that has been very musically isolated into a global community. The experience of being at the helm of such a significant performance moved Chung and inspired him to take this latest, bolder step toward offering North Korea and its musicians a place at the global table. Says Chung, “North Korean musicians were perfect in technique. They didn’t make a single mistake. But they were not that good at playing classical music. They were more like a pop orchestra.”
Chung’s invitation has yet to receive a definitive response, and he is essentially “waiting for ‘permission’ from the North. If they say ‘yes,’ the orchestra will have musicians from the South and the North Korea, China and Japan.” Despite the strong echoes of another moment of detente between North and South Korea, the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 at which athletes from both Koreas marched together, Chung cautioned that his invitation and the musical offering as a whole should not be appropriated for political purposes, making it clear that his first intention is to broaden the musical horizons of a nation of musicians who have been forcibly isolated from the rest of the global musical community.
As Chung says, “it is politically impossible to have both musicians from the North and the South. But if (the suggested event) is to help North Korean musicians improve their musical skills and to open their eyes to classical music, then the joint performance will be possible. Despite Chung’s cautionary statements, the world will be hard-pressed not to watch with bated breath as the project develops. Political statement or not, the appearance of these two feuding neighbors together in concert will speak volumes about music’s ability to pare away the artifice of political structures to reveal the humanity trapped inside. At the end of the day, though, Chung’s proposal serves an even higher cause than political unity, eschewing the worldly sphere of politics for the otherworldly sphere of music and artistic growth. No one has said it better than Chung himself: “You should never use music as (political) means. Music comes first in this case.”