Myung-Whun Chung is conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic. (Pierre Verdy / AFP / Getty…)
Classical music has a long and fruitful history serving as an informal olive branch between hostile countries. Cultural exchanges between the former Soviet Union and the West helped to thaw Cold War tensions as early as the 1950s.
Few people today know the diplomatic power of classical music better than Myung-Whun Chung, the South Korean conductor who has embarked on a one-man mission in recent months to reestablish cultural ties with North Korea.
Chung, who leads the Seoul Philharmonic, is in a unique position to use the podium as a diplomatic vehicle. Highly respected in the West and regarded as one of the leading conductors in Asia, he possesses the organizational clout to orchestrate grand symbolic gestures, such as last month's concert in Paris between North Korea's Unhasu Orchestra and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, for which Chung serves as music director.
This week, the conductor is in California as part of a tour with the Seoul Philharmonic, which will perform Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In a recent interview, he spoke about his visits to Pyongyang as well as his optimistic belief that the two Koreas will one day reunite.
"It's a lifelong wish," the 59-year-old conductor said on the phone from Seoul. "All Koreans wish to have reunification, or at least closer or more normal relations. Outside of the political arena, I have not met one Korean who doesn't feel that way."
During his trips to Pyongyang, Chung has been able to work closely with North Korean musicians. He observed that in the country's large disparity between the well-off and the poor, symphonic players fall into the former category. "The concertmaster [of the Unhasu] plays a Stradivarius violin," the conductor recalled.
Orchestras in North Korea play in grand, impressive halls, Chung said. But the Unhasu's repertoire is somewhat limited. "They play light classical music, the kind you might expect from the Boston Pops," he said. "But not so much mainstream symphonic repertoire — that is a skill that has to be developed." They also play folk music and national hymns using traditional Korean instruments.
The Unhasu is a relatively young orchestra, founded in 2009. The country's biggest symphonic group is the State Symphony Orchestra, founded in the late 1940s. That orchestra participated in a concert in 2008 with Lorin Maazel of the New York Philharmonic, which was visiting the isolated country at the time.
Chung was the driving force behind the March concert in Paris that brought together French and North Korean musicians for the first time for an orchestral concert. The musicians from North Korea initially kept to themselves during the rehearsal process, said Svetlin Roussev, a principal violinist with the Radio France and Seoul orchestras.
"It was difficult to communicate in the beginning, but I was lucky because several of them spoke Russian," said Roussev via email. (The violinist hails from Bulgaria and has spent much of his career in France.) "The principal violinist from North Korea studied in Moscow, so I was able to converse with him right away."
Pyongyang has been receptive to cultural exchange with the U.S. in recent years, including the 2008 New York Philharmonic trip, as well as a handful of visits by smaller American groups.
But cultural exchange with Seoul has seen a decline in recent years, said Namhee Lee, a professor of modern Korean history at UCLA. She said South Korean PresidentLee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008, has adopted a tougher stance on the North than his predecessors, thereby making cross-border cultural projects more difficult.
Thursday's concert will be the first time Chung has conducted at Disney Hall, but he's no stranger to the L.A. Philharmonic. In 1979, he became assistant conductor of the orchestra under Carlo Maria Giulini and later rose to the post of associate conductor. He left L.A. after three years and has since spent most of his career in Europe, where he has raised his family. (Chung speaks fluent French and Italian, in addition to Korean and English.)
Chung said his next endeavor will be to have North Korean musicians perform in a concert with the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, a pan-Asian ensemble that he leads. He would also like to see the Seoul Philharmonic perform in Pyongyang one day.
"I think that will happen quite soon" Chung said. "The human contact has been established and the willingness has been shown. Now I think the politicians will listen."