North Korea may famously be part of a supposed "Axis of Evil," but I'll tell you one thing: they have the best dressed, most polite concert audience I have ever seen in my life. In fact, I thought the sound wasn't working when this Blu-ray, after some establishing shots, traveled inside the beautiful and mammoth concert hall in Pyongyang. There simply wasn't a sound to be heard. It wasn't until a hostess of sorts came out and gave some introductory comments about the New York Philharmonic that I realized this audience, unlike any I've ever experienced in either America or Europe, had been sitting there absolutely silently, waiting for the music to begin. Amazing (if slightly spooky).
This attempt to bridge cultural differences and introduce the isolated country to our softer, gentler side is an admirable idea. The New York Philharmonic taped this concert in February 2008, when relationships between the countries were pretty much at an all time nadir (we're still technically at war with North Korea, as you history buffs probably already know). It's more than a bit disheartening to realize this is the first time an American orchestra has ever played within this country, and in fact is the first real artistic "invasion" from the west there. However, seeing the somewhat dour, if ever completely polite, audience slowly relax and give in to the power and majesty of expert orchestral playing may give some hope to the more jaded among us. Conductor Lorin Maazel waves his baton over a nice array of pieces, opening with Wagner's flashy "Prelude to Lohengrin," with its enticing string triplet figures underlying some astounding brass work. I had to wonder if there were some political subtext at work here, subtle as it might be, by opening with a composer known to have been loved by a despotic tyrant. Luckily Maazel, who makes some brief comments throughout the concert, doesn't belabor the point, but I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they chose this as the program opener (after the North Korean and American national anthems).
Next up is Dvorak's beloved "New World Symphony," written on commission from the Philharmonic and premiered by the Philharmonic in 1893. Probably most famous for its haunting second movement, with the famous English Horn solo, Dvorak's Ninth is actually at times surprisingly bombastic, if ever well measured and classically symmetrical, as in most of Dvorak's work, notably in its third movement which famously echoes Beethoven's own Ninth. The timbres here are superb, with brilliant balance between the brass and winds especially.
Maazel gets a nice reaction from the audience as he introduces Gershwin's "An American in Paris," saying that someday a composer might write "An American in Pyongyang." The audience seems perhaps a little confused by Gershwin's use of the taxi horns and the other glistening chromaticisms of the score, but it's actually hard to tell. While from a viewing standpoint the audience seems completely impassive for most the time, Maazel and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow aver both post-concert and in the excellent extra documentary included on the Blu-ray that they felt great warmth and admiration from the audience at all times (which is certainly backed up the by thundering, several minute standing ovation they receive at concert's end).
The one kind of peculiar, if pleasant, choice in the program is Bizet's "Farandole from L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2." While it's a melodic and well-recognized orchestral warhorse, it's not especially "meaningful" from an international perspective and doesn't give a lot of opportunity for the Phil to show off.
Maazel unexpectedly leaves the stage and lets Concertmaster Dicterow "conduct" Leonard Bernstein's "Overture to 'Candide'" next. This is the polar opposite of Bizet's piece, despite Bizet frequently being thought of as a "flashy" composer. There's certainly no Bernstein piece with more "flash" than this irrepressible piece, which Dicterow takes at an almost manic tempo, with fun results.
Maazel returns for the langorous finale, a traditional Korean piece arranged for orchestra entitled "Arirang." If it's at times meandering, working the pentatonic motif that a lot of Eastern music is based on, it's a mostly gentle and warm way to end the concert, and one which obviously speaks directly to the audience.
I was surprisingly engaged by this piece, which was televised across North Korea, and, later, in the United States. While Maazel isn't the showy conductor that, say, Bernstein was, he is a solid leader who, after decades in music which began with him as a child prodigy, is able to command orchestral forces with ease. In fact at times his reserved authority reminded me of Bernstein's own mentor Bruno Walter, and that's a good thing. The orchestra plays with its typical flair, perfectly balanced and always full of feeling. This hopefully is only the first of many such cultural interchanges.
This 1.78:1 1081i AVC transfer is very crisp, with bold, completely saturated color and excellent detail. However there are two very minor anomalies that you should be aware of lest you have a minor heart attack and think a couple of the pixels have failed on your HDTV. There are two cameras placed stage left and right which pan out over the audience at times. You will notice that each of these has a very small (just a couple of pixels) white dot in them, where no information was recorded. It may momentarily freak you out, but it is limited only to those two cameras. As is discussed in the extra documentary, HDTV cameras had to be trucked up from South Korea for this concert, and the problem is obviously endemic to just these two.
Both the PCM 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks are superb, if not quite as immersive as I would have hoped with regard to the 5.1 mix. All instruments are placed directionally in the mix, as might be expected, and yet the rear channels still seemed underutilized to me. That said, this is a glorious sounding Blu-ray, with brilliant fidelity. There are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese available. On my player, subtitles defaulted to "off," so make sure to set them to English before you start, or you'll miss the Korean hostess' comments.
Almost as good as the concert is the 52 minute documentary "Americans in Pyongyang," which documents how the Philharmonic was approached to perform in North Korea, and which provides a travelogue of their visit there. It's a little frightening at times (the players' cell phones were confiscated, and two early morning joggers were returned to their hotel under gunpoint), but it provides some fascinating insight into one of the most reclusive countries on our planet. Watch for the incredibly martial and well-choreographed traffic policewomen, as well as the State Orchestra under the direction of Maazel, whose string players literally begin weaving to and fro in exact unison as they play Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet"--it's truly an amazing display of "group think," somewhat like the literally awesome opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, with scores of people doing everything at the same time.
Even if you're not a big fan of classical music, you should consider at least renting this for the completely fascinating documentary. If you are a fan of classical music, this is easily Highly Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet