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Pyongyang, day 2: the big event, part I

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 - 11:29 AM

Day 2 starts just a few hours after a frustrating day 1 ends. Upon waking, no tech fairies have appeared to magically make connections work, though Larry Rock has been making reassuring noises in his emails to NY, which I'm cc'd on. The banquet room has been set up for a breakfast for the musicians and journalists, and it is further proof of just how hard they're trying here at the hotel - and how mixed their results are. An omelette chef is a welcome sight, and there is fruit, both familiar and unfamiliar. Also strange, presumably Korean dishes with mushrooms, beans, corn, and pickles. Some of these are pretty good, though not what we'd expect for breakfast. Under the category of 'just plain wrong' I'd put the macaroni and cheese (the sign says 'semolina gratin'), the skewered mutton (motto: 'tough leathery meat - it's not just for dinner anymore!'), and various other Western chafing dish entrees that would appear at your local Rotary Club dinner. But there is juice and yogurt, and water - thank heavens. You cannot, of course, drink the water in North Korea, and for someone like me who drinks a LOT of water, this is a problem. Steve Smith of Time Out NY tells me there's a shop in the back of the elevator bank that has bottled water - this is welcome news because I can't very well walk out of the banquet room with a bunch of their glass bottles of water.

Steve also says he was awakened by a phone call to his room: his handler needed him to fill out a press form and pay 30 Euros (almost 50 bucks) for a 'press pass' - a flimsy blue armband. Sure enough, when I get back to the lobby Mr Lee, my guide/minder, has a form and wants 30 Euros. No one knew anything about this, and with no chance of replacing hard currency here, there is a danger that we may now be short when payment time comes tomorrow. But as we'd been warned, there is a bureaucracy here that needs to be fed, and a certain amount of forebearance was necessary to get along.

The buses return to take the musicians to the dress rehearsal and the journalists on a sightseeing tour. This has surprised many of us - we assumed we would be kept away from much of the city, but the itinerary includes several of these opportunities and the handlers are urging us to come and take photos and see as much of the city as we have time for. It sounds good, and I will do that when I have time, but for the morning I need to be in the East Pyongyang Grand Theater with the band. If they're running the whole show, as planned, that will tell me how long the breaks between pieces are, where speeches will take place, where I may need to fill a bit of extra time, etc.

Mr. Lee is scandalized. Why won't I come with the rest of Bus 8? Because I need to see the rehearsal, I explain. I promise I will see the city later, and go onto a bus taking the CNN, Fox, and WFMT folks - all of whom need to see the rehearsal for their own broadcasts - to the theater.

Afternoon Rehearsal

It is Grand, all right. You could probably put two Carnegie Halls inside, and still have room to lay a football field on top. The lobby is a towering affair, and like most public buildings in Pyongyang, it is unheated. The hall itself is warm though. (I should mention that the hotel rooms were not just heated, but hot. Not that I was complaining. The heat and the stiffness of the small bed meant that no matter how little sleep you got, getting up in the morning was kind of a relief.)
New York Philharmonic rehearsal
The orchestra is there, and they are indeed running through the whole show, in what turns out to be a splendid hall that, like most of the better buildings we've seen, is a reminder of North Korea's glory days as an economic powerhouse in the 60s and 70s, while South Korea's economy was languishing. By the 'whole show,' I mean on-stage remarks, translations, etc. Of course what happens now will change tonight, but it'll give me a general idea of what to expect... And how the crowd might react. Because the hall is packed. Every seat is filled. NY Phil president Zarin Mehta will tell us later that he was informed that there was enough demand for tickets that they could've sold out several additional nights, and obviously some lucky Koreans who couldn't come to the official concert were able to score seats at the rehearsal, which is in fact now a concert in itself.

So who are these people? All along, we've been wondering who would come to the concert. The NY Phil has consistently said it doesn't know, while hinting at the possibility of 'special guests,' but for this morning, these are mostly teachers and library workers, plus a few students.

At the start, after welcoming remarks, the orchestra launches into the DPRK national anthem, and an entire audience jumps to attention in a single motion, as if they were all abruptly pulled up by strings. It's impressive, and a little creepy. Then, with no real pause, comes the Star-Spangled banner. Everyone remains at attention, and when it's over... Well, this is what we all wanted to see, isn't it? How the North Koreans would react to their sworn enemy's anthem being played on their soil? There is a very brief but immediately palpable moment of uncertainty, and then the audience applauds. Not wildly, but not half-heartedly either. Then another brief moment while the audience decides what to do next. Since the Phil is clearly ready to move on, the crowd sits.

I have to say, the orchestra looked and perhaps sounded a little tired in Beijing. They've been touring China for over 2 weeks, and that sort of thing will play havoc with your body clock. I've already forgotten what day it is and how long I've been here, and Beijing seems very far away. But this morning, now turning to afternoon, they sound pretty damn good. Lorin Maazel's movements have a crispness about them, and the Lohengrin Act III Prelude by Wagner is gleaming. No doubt why he chose the piece - it's a showpiece for both the band and the hall.

Dvorak's New World Symphony sounds great too, and movement 1 leads quickly into the famous Largo, later turned into the Spiritual 'Goin' Home.' Of course, this crowd would have no way of knowing that, but the music has an accessibility that seems to reach them, and when the movement ends, there is a smattering of applause, and I think I hear a bit of embarrassed chuckling. Hey, concert etiquette's a bitch, as they say.

The media is upstairs in the boxes overlooking the main floor of the hall. Mark Travis, who is doing this evening's broadcast for Chicago broadcaster WFMT and its network, is doing what I'm doing - scribbling down timings and notes on the ledge, which is almost deep enough to serve as a desk. Which is good, since I have a lifelong fear of heights. The ledge isn't bothering me since I'm sitting at it and looking out, not down. But CNN's Christiane Amanpour is in the box next to me, sitting on the ledge, and this is making me very nervous. Finally I tell her so; she laughs and says not to worry, but she's missing the point - I'm not worried about her, I'm worried about losing my lunch before I've even had it. But she does get down off the ledge. At this point a Korean gentleman whom I have not yet met comes into the box, announcing that he was looking for 'Mr. John Shaper.' It turns out the Mr. Lee, with only five of his six charges in his sight, needed someone to make sure the sixth wasn't off fomenting a revolution. Or counter-revolution, as the case may be. He wants me to leave, and I tell him I will be on the bus with these other journalists (indicating the CNN crew, a South Korean TV crew, and Mark), along with their handler - when the rehearsal ends. He looks young (but you know what? They ALL look young. I don't recall seeing a woman who looked to be over 30, anywhere - all right, what are you people doing with your women when they turn 40?) and out of his depth and I almost feel sorry for him.

Since this is a rehearsal, the orchestra is allowed a break, so there's an intermission here, which won't happen tonight. Then it's Gershwin's An American In Paris, followed by 3 encores. Twice Lorin Maazel ends his remarks with a word or two in Korean. But his pronunciation is apparently so atrocious that no one seems to understand him, and again there's some uncertain tittering, followed immediately by good-natured applause. Hey, he tried. And there is an eruption of applause when 6 wind players from the DPRK State Symphony Orchestra appear onstage for the final encore, the beloved Korean folksong 'Arirang.' This is unexpected - will this happen tonight too? Again, it'll be one of those go-with-the-flow things here.

The end of the rehearsal is a bit confusing, because while this has looked and sounded like a concert, it IS after all a rehearsal, and after the final applause, the audience genuinely doesn't know what to do. Conductor Maazel has heard a few things in both the Gershwin and the Bernstein Candide Overture, which the orchestra plays without a conductor in tribute to the late great maestro, and so everyone politely sits back down and watches the Phil work through a couple of short passages before the rehearsal time runs out. Backstage, I catch up again with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, who quips, 'they're gonna think we don't know how to play.'

Sleep deprivation, dehydration, frustration, and stress combine to make the rest of the afternoon a blur. Channel 13, WNET, is doing a live telecast tonight and they had asked me in NY if I would do an on-camera thing for the end of the broadcast. Seemed simple enough, and I wasn't going to have to worry about how to get the sound back to them, so I agreed. Finding their crew, who were incredibly mobile, was difficult, but I eventually record the thing and immediately regret nearly half of what I said. My throat is dry and while I thought I'd marshalled some coherent thoughts, I sound scattered in my own ears. Kind of like last night's live reports for Morning Edition and Brian Lehrer. Jeez, when am I gonna pull myself together?

Back at the hotel, it's back to the phone and the yousendit.com website to rush the music I've recorded back to culture editor Allison Lichter, who's been coordinating all the different shows that want reports from North Korea. But music files are big, so I use a compression program the engineers loaded onto the laptop for just this reason. When uncompressed back home, they'll sound (in theory) as good as what I started with. Well that actually works. Just one problem - they forgot to install the program on Allison's computer, so she can't unpack the files. She's got my report which I've phoned in (starting to really worry about the cost of these calls now, especially since several new sources, including CBS Radio Network, want stuff), but can't use the music yet. We are 14 hours ahead, though, and Ed Haber, my long-suffering tech director for 25 years of concerts at WNYC, has gotten up early or gone to bed late to unpack the music files; so by 9am, she should have it ready for the late hour of Morning Edition.

Lost Objects and Vertigo

Heading back to my room, on the 32nd floor, I decide to take a photo from the hall window, a kind of Pyongyang vista shot. Again, it's looking out, not down, so it's okay. And that's when I realize I've lost my glasses. They were in my coat, and I had them at rehearsal - and I realize that when I did the Channel 13 spot I threw my coat over a chair in the hall and the glasses must've fallen out there. Fortunately, we'll be back there in a while and I'll just go into the hall before it's open and look for them.

Heading back down, the doors open to the front elevator. I haven't been on this one yet. I step in - and the front wall of the front elevator is ALL GLASS. It is part of the front of the building and it's ALL GLASS AND THIS IS NOT OKAY! Plastered against the back wall and looking resolutely at the doors (can't look at the wall facing the glass because it's ALL MIRRORS and definitely NOT COOL EITHER), with my hands and feet beginning to swell, I realize that I am having a tough time going with the goddamn flow.

It doesn't even occur to me to press a button to get off and wait for any other elevator until it stops on the 7th floor. The doors open onto a dark, completely unlit hallway from which emerge two gentlemen who are not in military uniform but have 'I will whup your yankee ass' written all over them. They get in, nod politely, and we ride down in silence. Clearly I was not supposed to get off on 7.

I will later see that we're not supposed to get off on 17 either, or 18 - both completely dark when staff entered or exited after nightfall. I wonder about 9, though. A North Korean man in his 20s (or maybe he was 50, I've given up trying to guess) and a girl about the same age get on one of the elevators that night while I'm riding with two other journalists, and he turns and says 'it's alright, she is my wife.' The doors open onto a pitch black 9th floor and they both get off, stifling giggles.

'I Make Radio' & Smuggled Gear

It is time, finally, for the buses to depart for the main event. I've got my recording gear and hope to recover my glasses when we get there. But - surprise! - there's a problem. We need tickets to get out of the freezing lobby and into the warm hall. People are starting to arrive and enter the hall - our buses ran late and my chance of scouring an empty hall for my glasses are diminishing by the moment. But I can't talk my way past an uncomprehending but unyielding Korean woman (approximate age, 22. Or 63.) The Philharmonic staff, it must be said, have been keeping everyone sane and getting the media what it needs and generally have made this whole thing work. One of them, Michelle Balm, walks around handing out tickets and tells me I have a specific place (as does Mark Travis, who will also need a quiet place to record his broadcast) while the rest of the tickets are general seating. That's fine, and I run back to the doors only to be denied entrance again. My ageless tormentor pulls at my coat and points to a hallway, and makes it clear that I am to check my coat. I'd heard that this was a common security measure in North Korea, but people are filling the hall and I want to go to the spot where I think I lost my glasses. I try to explain this through a kind of pantomime - forming two circles with my fingers and putting them in front of my eyes is clearly going to be the universal signal for 'glasses.' And apparently the rest was the universal signal for 'hopeless idiot'. Entry denied.

Rush to coat check. Get my coat check tag. Rush back to door. Turn around and rush back to coat check - I've left my envelope full of Euros in the inside pocket, and I don't want to take any chances. Back to the door. Guess what? The universal signal for 'no dice, buster.' What's the f#*+ing problem now? My bag of recording gear. I now turn to the last resort of the American-in-foreign-language-meltdown mode: I start speaking English, slow and loud. 'I am broadcaster,' I announce stupidly. 'Make radio. Microphone. Concert! Radio! You will please just shoot me!'

Eventually, Michelle comes and explains to me that she will work it out. How? By enlisting one of her colleagues to carry the bag as her handbag, while I hide the small hard-drive recorder and mike in my pockets and she hides the cable and headphones in her jacket. Brilliant! We cruise right by the Korean Charybdis at the door, who doesn't even look as we go by. Now, of course, the hall is full. People are milling about and while I drop my ticket near the spot where I think my glasses fell out so I can check on the ground, there is nothing there and no hope of finding them.

So who actually came? Two whole rows were reserved for Ambassadors (according to the seat signs, anyway. I'm sure some family and staff were included). We are still officially at war with North Korea, so the Swedish Embassy handles all American affairs there, and they have invited the diplomats. The Vice Minister of Culture and numerous other high-ranking officials from the ministry are there. So are the patrons of the NY Phil who paid for the costs of this extraordinary addition to the group's Asian tour. The rest seem to be rank and file North Koreans. Although in Pyongyang, everyone seems to be a government employee in some way. Still, it's a full house, and the crowd is buzzing.

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