Charles Rex  

Musings on the New York Philharmonic's North Korea Concert

Charles Rex
March 20, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The New York Philharmonic's recent concert in North Korea received enormous publicity from international press. The world was extremely excited about it, and the concert itself was a wonderful success, perhaps opening a door as ping-pong did in China in the 1970s. Only time will tell.

Polyphonic has been very interested in publishing personal reflections from a NY Philharmonic musician who participated in this tour, and we are delighted that Charles Rex, violinist with the NY Philharmonic, has agreed to permit us to publish this essay he wrote about his trip.

Charles is a unique observer of the NY Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang because he was part of the Philadelphia Orchestra's historic trip to China during the Nixon era. He truly has participated in two epochal symphonies as they serve as ambassadors for peace and the US.

- Ann Drinan
While only time can tell what the ultimate outcome will be of the New York Philharmonic's concert in North Korea during our recent Asian concert tour, I think that it will be difficult to overestimate the symbolic importance of what this cultural exchange will ultimately portend for the United States' relationship with this extremely secretive society. One can understand why some of our government officials felt that the event should be underplayed in terms of its significance, but as someone who was there and who saw the reaction of the North Korean people and leaders who attended the concert, I do not believe that anyone should make the mistake of underestimating what happened, any more than one can underestimate the Philadelphia Orchestra's trip to China in 1973, an event that I also had the good fortune of being a part of since I was a member of that orchestra at that time. Having been on two such historic trips, I cannot help but be struck by the many similarities between these two events, and just as a small leak can cause the breakdown of a huge dam, this concert may be that first tiny little crack that will prove to be an unstoppable flood within a few years.

Pyongyang skyline The Pyongyang skyline (click to enlarge)

The most memorable parts of the tour for me started a few days into our trip when we arrived in Shanghai. The last time I had visited the city was on that historic tour in 1973 that came about when then- President Nixon first opened up relations with mainland China. As I mentioned, I was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra then, and as one of America's leading orchestras, we were sent on a State Department tour of China as a goodwill cultural exchange. We visited Beijing (called Peking at that time) and Shanghai, and it was indeed an amazing trip. For one thing, we saw the China of Mao Tse Tung where everyone dressed the same in their "Mao jackets," both men and women, and everyone carried around their little red books of Mao's sayings, but there were very few cars on the road, and virtually everyone was on bicycles, tens of thousands of them. Every bit of ground no matter how small or where it was located, including little islands at street intersections, was growing some sort of food, and everything about the city seemed a bit dusty and gray. Everywhere you went were pictures of Mao staring down at you, and there were always the ever-present signs proclaiming the "workers' revolution." The government presence seemed to be everywhere.

Nonetheless it was a fascinating country, and we were treated to the best they had. The food was fantastic, being true Chinese cuisine, and that was where I first became adept at using chopsticks. Banquets were thrown for us left and right, and we had been briefed by the State Department that good manners in China require that you sample everything that is served. The only trouble was that there could be anywhere from 12 to 18 main courses plus many side dishes, so you really had to pace yourself or you simply could not handle the food. Some of the dishes got a little exotic. I remember one banquet in particular where a serving bowl started making its way around our table, and from a yard away its contents seemed to be on the verge of wilting the flowers in the center of the table. Most people have seen heat waves rising from a hot road on a summer day. That was what seemed to be happening from the center of this bowl, but not from its temperature. In this dish were things that looked like pieces of chicken skin in a kind of yellow-brown sauce. With not a little fear, I asked the waiter through a translator what this was. The reply came back, "Oh, this is a Chinese delicacy. This is the webbing from in between duck's feet in mustard sauce." In an attempt to obey protocol, I took some, but I hid it underneath something else on my plate, and I never actually managed to work up the courage to try it. However I did try other things such as the jellyfish, which was actually a little crunchy and surprisingly good.

Then there was the Mao-tai, a sorghum liquor that might be compared to vodka, but it can be a good bit stronger. At this banquet, it was served in little crystal glasses not much larger than sewing thimbles. Every ten minutes, somebody at the leaders' table would stand up and propose a toast, and we would have to down the contents of our glasses, and the waiters would then come around and refill them— "Here's to world peace," "Here's to Chinese-US relations," "Here's to the Philadelphia Orchestra," etc., etc.As one can imagine, about halfway through the banquet, many in the orchestra were feeling the effects. One of our violinists actually passed out, and not being a small man, it took four Chinese to carry him out, one on each limb.

Be that as it may, the tour was unbelievable. We were there for two weeks and played only six concerts. The rest of the time was spent on big sightseeing trips put on for us by the Chinese government. We saw such sights as the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, and the Summer Palace. The famed Terra Cotta Army of Shih Huang-ti, the first Emperor of China, had recently been discovered, and we were taken to see that as well.

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Thanks for your wonderful first-hand account Charles. The photos are great, and your perspective about the first China trip added a lot too.

Yvonne Caruthers
yvonne on March 24, 2019 at 6:27 PM
This article is magnificent Maestro Rex. I thoroughly enjoyed it. As Eugene Drucker has already done, you can easily write a book any time you want. I'm sure it would be fascinating.
mexindian on April 4, 2019 at 11:10 AM

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