On February 26, 2007, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, North Korea. This was the first time a U.S. cultural organization had stepped foot on North Korean soil; and not only were the musicians welcomed into the insulated country, but they were given a five minute round of applause during their final bows.
The Philharmonic’s performance, dubbed “Symphonic Diplomacy” by the New York Times, didn’t create instant harmony (even though there is harmony in dissonance, so I’m told by my friend, Emily) between Washington and Pyongyang. But the performance did make an impact.
John Deak, the Philharmonic’s principal bassist, described what he and his colleagues felt as the orchestra left the stage at the end of their performance while the audience waved goodbye to them:
“Half of the orchestra burst into tears, including myself and we started waving back at them and suddenly there was this kind of artistic bond that is just a miracle. I’m not going to make any statements about what’s going to change or everything. Things happen slowly. But I do know that the most profound connection was made with the Korean people tonight.”
Deak reminds me of what people-to-people exchange is really all about: CONNECTION.
So why am I talking about an event that happened over four years ago in a country nowhere near Latin America? Well, because the New York Philharmonic is trying to perform in Cuba but hasn’t been able to get there—seems ironic since the shortest flight to North Korea is 13 hours, as opposed to the 45 minute flight to Havana.
A year and a half ago my friend, Andy Turner, wrote a post for LAWG reflecting on his experience watching Viengsay Valdés, the Primer Ballerina of the National Ballet of Cuba, perform alongside the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Andy said then, “Watching Viengsay Valdés dance was such a lovely, apolitical experience. If we could only have more of these exchanges, perhaps our governments would follow.” Unfortunately, in that same post Andy broke the news to us that the New York Philharmonic was canceling its trip to Cuba because the orchestra’s benefactors were not given licenses to attend the event.
In November, things were looking good for round two of “Symphonic Diplomacy.” The orchestra and its patrons were given a license to travel to Cuba, and a date was proposed: June 2011. In January, the White House announced changes in the Cuba travel regulations; one of the announced changes was the reinstitution of “people-to-people” exchange, a category that includes, among other things, cultural exchange.
But not everything works out as planned. Now, in early April, we get word from the Philharmonic that the trip is again canceled. This time because there is no charter plane big enough to take the entire group. Some might say that this is just bad luck, but I fault U.S. policy for this one, too. The New York Philharmonic wouldn’t need a charter flight to go to Cuba if there were no travel ban, right?
So…another connection lost.