Can orchestras play a starring role in world diplomacy? Yes, they can. The New York Philharmonic plans to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in February. The Philharmonic's trip, which has generated some controversy among orchestra musicians and commentators, will follow a venerable line of groundbreaking orchestra tours that have played a role in diplomacy, the most famous one, perhaps, taking place in 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon's historic visit and amid what came to be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, went three years later.
Some questions have been raised about the appropriateness of visiting a country run by one of the world's most repressive governments. North Korea's policies have been blamed in part for the famine-related starvation of perhaps two million people and it confines hundreds of thousands of people in labor camps.
If the orchestra goes to Pyongyang, "it will be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime," Terry Teachout, an arts critic and blogger, wrote on the online opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal in late October.
My question is why the NY Phil demanded the right to play the Star Spangled Banner. The North Koreans are just on the cusp of perhaps softening their anti-American propaganda. Let's not push things too far.