Magazine | March 20, 2017, Issue

‘Step, Step, Step’

Ureuk Symphony Orchestra (image via Facebook)
On paeans to dictators and other difficult music

The New York Philharmonic is the main orchestra in New York — but there are others, including the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra. Some think that the pit band is better than the onstage symphony orchestra. But that’s another article.

Among the lesser orchestras — very lesser — is the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra. The name derives from a legendary musician of Korean antiquity, Ureuk. He invented the gayageum, a kind of zither.

The USO — not to be confused with the United Service Organizations, and Bob Hope’s performances for soldiers — does not play regularly. It plays occasionally, and ceremonially. The orchestra rents Merkin Concert Hall, which is a block or two from Lincoln Center.

It is funded by the Korean American National Coordinating Council — a front group for the North Korean dictatorship. It is conducted by Maestro Christopher Joonmoo Lee, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. He is an ardent supporter of the dictatorship, as he proves on Facebook and elsewhere. When North Korea explodes a nuke, Maestro Lee explodes in joy.

What about the orchestra’s members? Are they totalitarians too? No, they tend to be New York–area working stiffs, taking advantage of a gig. Some know, some don’t. Some are wise to what the USO is about, some aren’t. As press reports multiply, few will be in the dark.

The USO reliably plays a concert on February 16 and April 15. The former date is Kim Jong-il’s birthday. It is the “Day of the Shining Star.” The latter is Kim Il-sung’s birthday. It is the “Day of the Sun.” Apparently, the third Kim dictator — Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and the grandson of Kim Il-sung — does not yet rate a concert. His birthday, in any case, is January 8.

The USO also plays “peace concerts” — and “peace” is one of the slipperiest words in the entire dictionary. There was such a concert last September. In attendance was the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, and his entourage. They were in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. The next day, Mr. Ri gave a speech in that body, threatening to rain down hell on the Americans and their South Korean partners.

At Merkin Concert Hall, the audience heard Brahms and Rachmaninoff — and then a sampling of “Korean Orchestra Music.” This music included Footsteps, which turns out to be a paean to Kim Jong-un. The lyrics go, “Step, step, step — the footsteps of our General Kim. The whole nation follows as one: step, step, step.”

But there was no singing in this concert. There were North Korean propaganda songs, such as Footsteps, but they were performed in purely orchestral versions.

Two reporters for the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng and Timothy W. Martin, wrote a story about the concert. They talked to a cellist in the orchestra, who had not been quite aware of what he was playing. “I wasn’t sure what all the music meant,” he said. “It just seemed kind of militaristic.”

A lady in the audience said, “It was very uplifting. You felt very satisfied, like, ‘Oh, my God, that felt really good.’”

The reporters also talked to a violinist, who knew what she was doing. She was not thrilled with the celebration of the Kims through music, but she pleaded professionalism — and said, “The art on its own does not hurt anyone.”

Oh? That is a very interesting subject. As the reporters noted, “musical performances in Manhattan, enemy territory, are particularly prized pieces of propaganda back home.” Yes, indeed. USO concerts in New York — which don’t make a ripple in New York — are splashed in North Korean state media as great national victories.

Speaking of great national victories, Hu Jintao paid a visit to Washington in 2011. He was then the boss of the Chinese Communist Party. President Obama hosted him for a state dinner. Entertainment was provided by Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist. In addition to being a pianist, he is a party official: a vice-chairman of the All-China Youth Federation. As such, he is pledged to uphold and instill “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents.”

That night, he played a song without words (to borrow a phrase from Mendelssohn). Actually, this song has words — but Lang Lang played a pianistic version. There was no singing, by him or anyone else.

The song was “My Motherland,” from the Chinese movie The Battle of Triangle Hill. Chances are, you don’t know this song, or the movie, but Chinese people do. The movie is a propaganda flick about the Korean War. The song tells how the Chinese will deal with the American “jackal.”

Before the big event, Lang Lang gave an interview to a Chinese television network, in which he said it was his choice to play the song. “I thought to play ‘My Motherland’ because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song.”

In the White House, Hu Jintao was moved. Normally a man of distinct reserve, he embraced Lang Lang, emotionally, after the performance.

A few days later, the pianist said this in a blog post: “Playing this song praising China to heads of state from around the world seems to tell them that our China is formidable, that our Chinese people are united. I feel deeply honored and proud.”

A Chinese psychiatrist living in Philadelphia, Yang Jingduan, had his own assessment of “My Motherland,” performed at the White House. He told the Epoch Times, “In the eyes of all Chinese, this will not be seen as anything other than a big insult to the U.S. It’s like insulting you to your face and you don’t know it. It’s humiliating.”

We do not always know what we’re hearing, do we? I think back to the mid 1980s, when Americans were being held hostage in Lebanon. Muhammad Ali, the boxing hero, went to try to negotiate their release. He was greeted at a mosque by a chanting mob. He pumped his fist along with them.

It transpired that they were chanting “Death to America.” “Death to Reagan.” Ali explained that, not being an Arabic-speaker, he had no idea what they were saying. He simply “felt good.” What’s more, “we are all brothers — black, white, yellow, blue.”

Music without words — that has never had any words — can’t really mean anything, no matter how hard composers try. They can cheat, by quoting “Happy Birthday,” for example, or a national anthem. Think of Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture. Think of how the French, represented by the Marseillaise, beat a humiliated retreat. But notes can strike listeners in any number of ways, intended or unintended.

In 2003, I interviewed Ned Rorem, the American composer, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. (He’s still going.) He said, “A piece without a text, without a vocal line, can’t mean detailed things like Tuesday, butter, or yellow, and it can’t even mean general things like death or love or the weather, although a timpani roll can sound like thunder, and certain conventions about love come out of Wagner.”

In that same year, 2003, Peter Maxwell Davies, the British composer, wrote a string quartet with a purpose: to portray and condemn the Iraq War. His quartet, he said, was “an unpremeditated and spontaneous reaction to the illegal invasion of Iraq.” It is a fine string quartet. If you want it to be about Iraq, be my guest. The late Sir Peter would appreciate it. But it is also simply music, wordless. You can invest it with any meaning you want, or none.

The year 2014 was bad for Ukraine. Putin annexed the Crimea and prompted war in the Donbass. An Estonian student at the New England Conservatory, Jonas Tarm, wrote a piece of music. It was commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony, to be performed in Carnegie Hall. The young man’s piece had a Ukrainian title, whose English translation is “March to Oblivion.” It was dedicated to “the victims of hunger and fire.”

Six days before Carnegie Hall, the orchestra’s board of trustees pulled the piece. Why? Well, the piece quotes the anthem of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Surely, no one in New York knew that. But it also quotes the “Horst Wessel Song,” the Nazi anthem. And someone knew that. So the board pulled the piece.

In response, Mr. Tarm said he was “disappointed and confused,” as well he should have been. He was not celebrating totalitarianism. On the contrary, he wrote an anti-totalitarian piece — a piece with an anti-totalitarian intention.

There is an old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” Mr. Tarm said he was adding a variation: “Apparently you also have to self-censor.”

Composers in the Soviet Union wrote music in celebration of the Kremlin, often under duress. Take Hail to Stalin. Prokofiev wrote it in 1939, in honor of the dictator’s 60th birthday. It has words, being a cantata. Sample: “He hears all, sees all” (which was true, in a sense).

Being Prokofiev, it contains some excellent music. It occasionally resembles Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s immortal ballet, written a few years before. It also resembles another Prokofiev cantata, Alexander Nevsky, a staple of the repertoire.

You and I can listen to Alexander Nevsky till the cows come home. But Hail to Stalin? That is different. Because we know — know what’s up. And if we didn’t?

Christopher Joonmoo Lee’s predecessor in conducting, Arturo Toscanini, could be gloriously unsentimental about music. He once made a remark about Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” or “Heroic.” “You know what the first movement means to me? Allegro con brio in E flat.” (“Allegro con brio” is the movement’s marking; E flat is its key.)

How about Footsteps, the ode to Kim Jong-un? Without words, is it merely a catchy tune in F minor (and other keys, as the piece advances, step by step)? Yes, it is. But I would still feel like a heel for playing it, or applauding it — if I knew. Which we do.

A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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