Successful Musical Diplomacy

One area of research competence and interest for me involves musical diplomacy, particularly as it has effected the US-China bilateral relationship.  I spoke about the topic at this State Department conference in 2006 where I met Christopher Hill and got in his ear (and those of other State officials including Asst. Secretary of State for East Asia Tom Christensen) about using music as a channel with the North Koreans.  It took about 18 months for the North Koreans to welcome the New York Philharmonic after these conversations.

More stuff is in the works along these lines pairing my work on US-China relations in the 1970s with ongoing interests in North Korean music (including its educational uses as well as for military mobilization and function within North Korean-Chinese relations).

Today I was somehow gifted with the concurrence of three things, and strangely so: the deadline for resubmission of a revised article to Acta Koreana on musical diplomacy and North Korea, my Cleveland Institute of Music alumni magazine (with a profile of model composer, educational thinker, and eurhythmics proponent Ernst Bloch, no less), and a completely random e-mail from the Juilliard School in New York.

It appears that Juilliard will be cashing in on some earlier contacts with Chinese music administrators and going for broke with an unabashedly pro-China extravaganza this fall.  When the New York Philharmonic has gone native, hiring a (Japanese-heritage) American music director for the first time in forever, what’s a conservatory to do?  Go the the well, that’s what!

The thing I love about this is the normalcy of it all.  Kurt Sassmannshaus and Cincinnati Conservatory have their festival every year in Beijing, Chinese music is more and more prevalent in this country, and exchanges happen every single day.

It seems that Beethoven beats Mao.

Would that thirty years from now, Pyongyang students are working their tails off in Juilliard, and that Cleveland Institute of Music faculty (and alumni) can go to the old Kim Il Sung University, or the Fine Arts department at Kim Chaek, to give more masterclasses or learn something new about pan’sori, and that we can all hear Shostakovich in Sinuiju.

Until then here is the press release from Juilliard.  Note the language of ancient diplomacy whereby we, the barbarians, pay homage to the greatness of the kingdom in question.  Because I can’t help myself, I will make little descriptive comments in brackets:

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, a festival celebrating [ancient and mysterious] Chinese culture, presented by [the ghost of Isaac Stern] Carnegie Hall.  The concert takes place in [gorgeously decadent and autumnal] New York City from October 21 – November 10. The festival [and I could not make this up] pays tribute to China’s [happy, shining minorities including Tibetans with refrigerators full of beer] diverse and vibrant [mass line] culture and its [soft power and Confucius Institutes] influence around the [otherwise budget-cutting] world with 21 days of events [which will certainly not correspond to any major earthquakes, anti-CNN campaigns, Dalai Lama visits to anywhere, or upsurges of Chinese nationalism]. As [supplicant] partner, Juilliard presents an all-[Qin Shihuang] Tan Dun [HOLY SHIT] program on Monday, October 26 at 7:30 PM in [that renovated yet still poor substitute for “The Egg” in Beijing,] Alice Tully Hall.  The [half-Korean] Juilliard Orchestra [who would be NY Phil members but for the fact that none of the unionized dead wood will retire] will be conducted by the [bald and dashing] composer [as he sweats like James Levine into a Chinese tunic, hands bereft of baton or any discernible ictus].  The program features [giant Chinese drums and] the world premiere of Tan Dun’s [Giant Gong and] Violin Concerto with [treble-clef fluent yet red-faced-and-puffing-and-strangely-unable-to-just-let-his-arm-weight-pull-on-the-string-thus-resulting-in-a-pressed-tone-in-spite-of his-gorgeous-Strad-which-is-owned-by-HSBC] soloist and Juilliard faculty member and [debtor] alumnus, Cho-Liang Lin [whose familial relations with the mainland will not be described here]. Chamber works by [the incredible Oriental mystic] Tan Dun – Concerto for Six [Giant Drums], [mysterious and Chinese] Secret Land [with program notes about bamboo forests which will surely evoke flying kung fu artists] for orchestra and 12 cellos [Holy Bacchianas Brasiliaras!], and Silk Road [no! snap! he didn’t just do that!]- complete the October [dear God we are all going to be ruled by Xi Jinping soon] 26 program. FREE tickets are available [and will no doubt be scalped by someone named “Jimmy”] two weeks [in the mad and disorganized scramble] before the event [outside a certain fragrant restaurant].

On [the very auspiciously-numbered day which portends great wealth for all participants]  October 28 at 8 PM [after the initial proposal for a April 4 at 4 p.m. was declined as a portent of mass carnage], Carnegie Hall [longing for the body of David Robertson instead] presents [the resurrection of Leonard Bernstein] conductor [educator, and self-admitted spotlight hog who nevertheless plays in Florida with conservatory graduates who, but for their non-union contracts with the New World Symphony and occasional Pops run-outs to Miami golf courses, would be eating Ramen noodles in a frigid 1993 Nissan Sentra on their way to a $70 gig in Erie, Pa.] Michael Tilson Thomas [of San Francisco] leading the [almost-professional yet undeniably tuition-paying] Juilliard [half-Korean] Orchestra with guest [northeastern Chinese 东北人/活雷锋/你干啥呀] artist pianist Lang Lang [and his humble erhu-playing father who shockingly once applied pressure to his only son] in the world premiere [not including the dress rehearsal for a few select donors, a serious-looking-graduate student with a score, and the Chinese consul general] of a new work for [Lang Lang’s profile and] piano and orchestra by Chen Qigang; Lou Harrison’s Pacifika Rondo; Chinese works for solo piano [e.g., whatever the hell Lang Lang wants to play off the top of his big head] ; and Gustav Mahler’s [hallucination/fin de siecle Viennese pastiche on T’ang poetry] Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Orc] with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter [who is unknown to me but obviously from Otter, and Teutonic, and thus must possess qualities of Gretchen, and who will radiate great healing beams of tone outward so powerful as to be rested upon by the id of a thousand aging and nostalgic males as a temporary personification of the perfect ewige Weibliche while she suffers the submerged wrath of said men’s spouses as a perfidious Alma Mahler who will no doubt come up in the shawling aftermath of chit-chat, but at no point will anyone imagine her to be a willowy Chinese lass as imagined by T’ang poets whose translations she has studied] and tenor Gregory Kunde [who wishes he could be doing Siegfried at the Met as Seattle turned him down last year and he had to settle for this gig with a student orchestra who themselves might rather be eating hotpot in Seoul’s Samcheongdong but at least they are not unionized and just gazing at the clock which is kind of endearing anyway]. Chen Qigang recently directed the [totally communist and totalitarian/very inspiring and patriotic] music program for the opening [rite] ceremony of the 2008 [eternal] Beijing [Berlin] Olympics.

See you there?

April 2009 Seattle apartment
Seattle, Chinatown, 2009

Chinese Cellists rehearsing Mendelssohn Octet (the same piece played by NY Phil/NK student quartet in Pyongyang Feb 2008) at Great Wall Music Festival, Beijing, 2009 (thanks to Fang Fang Li and Kurt Sassmannshaus)
Cellists rehearsing Mendelssohn Octet (the same piece played by NY Phil/NK student quartet in Pyongyang Feb 2008) at Great Wall Music Festival, Beijing, 2009 (thanks to Fang Fang Li and Kurt Sassmannshaus -- please contact if there are any issues with me using this image on my site!)
Pyongyang -- Imagine this sunrise to the opening of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony and a key will turn


  1. “otherwise budget-cutting” — chortle
    “happy, shining” — shouldn’t that be “happy, shining, dancing”?
    The 你干啥呀 reference to Lang Lang as 活雷锋 is over my head. Backstory?

    1. Indeed, there is so much spontaneous happy dancing among all of China’s minority groups! And 你干啥呀 is not specifically tied to the reference to Lang Lang as “a living Lei Feng,” but instead points to the pianist’s northeastern origins; 你干啥呀 is short for 你干什么 (ni gan shen me / what are you doing) ; it’s a common locution probably most popularized by the CCP-friendly and trafficker in revolutionary nostalgia from Tieling, Liaoning province, Zhao Benshan / 赵本山. Using it in the sequence I did was meant to replicate er ren zhuan just a touch, the rapid patois and back and forth, something ridiculous and inherently theatrical about the big-spirited people (including the minorities!) of China’s burly northeast.

      By the way, I am an instant fan of your blog; will be linking there and by the looks of it, recommending to students and friends. Did you learn about my blog on

  2. OK, I think I get the 你干什么 thing.
    Yes, got your blog off of the Danwei link a while ago. It went into cold storage in google reader for a while until all of a sudden it had amassed 47 entries (to about one on Beijing Sounds during the same time period). Very impressive. As I mentioned in another comment: very happy to have found it.

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