PYONGYANG – North Korea’s largest orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for the first time Friday, lead by celebrated Japanese conductor Michiyoshi Inoue despite heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The concert in Pyongyang by the State Symphony Orchestra was held amid North Korea’s threat to abandon Monday the 1953 armistice that effectively ended hostilities in the Korean War, and a day after the U.N. Security Council imposed its harshest sanctions yet on the communist country over its third nuclear test.
The packed concert, attended by about 1,500 people at the People’s Theater, featured a 120-strong North Korean choir and four vocal soloists from both the North and Japan. It commenced with the traditional Korean folk song “Arirang” before launching into Beethoven’s final and best-known symphony, completed in 1824.
“I was able to enjoy it very much,” the award-winning Inoue, 66, said after the performance, adding that since outstanding issues “cannot be solved politically” between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties, cultural and sports exchanges must be expanded.
Inoue, music director of the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, said he chose the masterpiece because it expresses “a desire for peace.” He conducted the show at the invitation of the State Symphony Orchestra, and said it was the first time the ensemble has performed the piece in North Korea.
The symphony’s famous choral finale, a setting of the Friedrich Schiller poem “Ode to Joy” espousing universal brotherhood, drew a thunderous standing ovation that lasted more than 10 minutes.
“It is little known in Japan that (North Korea) has such a great orchestra, choir and theater,” Inoue told the audience from the stage.
The concert took place on a public holiday to mark International Women’s Day. Pyongyang was filled with a rare, vaguely festive atmosphere, with children playing outside and residents eating out at restaurants with their families and friends.
Inoue returned home Saturday following a weeklong trip to the North. He previously visited Pyongyang in 2011 as part of bilateral musical exchanges.
He has been invited to conduct some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra