Read from Korea Herold:
Although North Korea has been stuck with several labels in recent years, a center for classical music has not been one of them. But as one recent visitor tells it, Pyongyang is a place where the egalitarian overtones of Beethoven thrive amid the blaring of government propaganda.
"I have a very positive opinion about the North Korean classical music scene. Not about the rest, I want to point out," said Peter von Wienhardt, a renowned concert pianist and composer who visited Pyongyang last week. "The North Koreans were very good, and at a very high level. One of the highest levels I ever heard."
While North Korea remains as politically isolated as it has ever been, von Wienhardt said its musicians, at least, were eager to reach out to the rest of the world. A director at several prominent music festivals in Europe including the Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, von Wienhardt was invited by the North Korean government to observe the April Spring Festival, an annual performing arts event celebrating the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
Pianist Peter von Wienhardt will perform a little-known Beethoven work called the "Concerto No. 0" tomorrow at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
Von Wienhardt advised officials on how to attract more foreign musicians to perform in a country notoriously closed off to the outside world. Though his opinions of the guest artists in the festival were mixed - most were from Russia, China and former Soviet-bloc countries - he was surprised to see an abundance of indigenous talent. "The North Korean musicians were just wonderful. They know what to do. They were very professional," he said. Von Wienhardt was also taken by his hosts' hospitality. When he mentioned that he had an interest in young prodigies, officials restaged a 300-person children's concert, apparently for his benefit. He sat in the audience with 1,000 children.
Though von Wienhardt, 37, was unable to perform in Pyongyang, he is holding a concert at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts this Sunday, playing chamber works by Beethoven and Piazzolla.
He will also present a little-known and seldom-performed Beethoven work thought to be lost until turn of the last century. Before he composed his five published piano concertos, Beethoven wrote and performed a concerto in E flat when he was around 13. Ever the self-demanding perfectionist, he thought it best to bury it for the sake of posterity.
"Beethoven didn't lose it, but he totally forgot about it. He never took it seriously. Nevertheless, he wrote a serious piece," he said.
Von Wienhardt said the work turned up in an archive and was officially catalogued "Work without opus, 4" or otherwise known as "Concerto No. 0." The surviving fragments included the original solo part and a reduced orchestral score, which was later reconstructed by a German musicologist. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter tried to revive it during the 1950s, but No. 0 was considered classical period juvenilia, passe to the prevailing tastes of the times. It was once again left largely forgotten.
As an 18-year-old pianist and composition student, von Wienhardt was smitten enough to want to write his own orchestral accompaniment, a project that took him six years to finish. He began performing the complete work when he launched his solo career during his 20s.
While it seems like a work of a dutiful young tyro, von Wienhardt said No. 0 had the rambunctious stamp of Beethoven written all over it.
"Oh, you can hear it. In my own words, it's a weird mixture between Mozart and Beethoven. It sounds like Mozart but from time to time, it has eruptions like Beethoven. It's very difficult, which is unusual and unfortunate," he said.
Considering that Beethoven's other five concertos are among the most popular works in the repertory, No. 0's obscurity and technical difficulty are why both pianists and conductors are loath to tackle it. And the situation is self-perpetuating, von Wienhardt explains.
For the past 10 years or so, he has been a champion of this work, performing it as often as he can. This August, he is planning to record No. 0 with the Darmstadt Hofkapelle with conductor Wolfgang Seeliger.
He said he would gladly perform Beethoven No. 0 in North Korea if offered the opportunity. Despite the black mark on the country in the eyes of the world community, von Wienhardt maintained that he and most musicians separated art from politics and had no qualms about performing there. The only hindrance, he said, was the money.
Min Kyung-chan, a professor of music at Korea National University of the Arts, said North Korea sustained a surprisingly adequate classical music scene, considering how much it was limited by resources and ideology. "They play people's music that is easy to understand and is uplifting. Though most modern music is banned, they play the standard repertory really well. The problem is that they have no money. The number of performances has decreased. And they have no money to bring in foreign artists from whom North Korean musicians can learn."
During his visit, von Wienhardt was allowed to tour Pyongyang accompanied by two chaperones, who identified themselves as a teacher and a student. Though careful not to idealize the current situation or his own past, he said his visit reminded him of growing up in Hungary during the Cold War. He was born in Budapest in 1966 and left Hungary when he was 9.
"I think we should never forget about the past when we consider our own future," he said, adding that he could not adequately comment on the everyday citizens. "But what I feel is that the North Koreans are trying very hard. They love their system, mostly, and they are trying very hard to keep it alive."
Peter von Wienhardt will perform at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts tomorrow at 7 p.m. Tickets start at 30,000 won. For more information, call (02) 2068-8000 or visit www.sejongpac.or.kr.
By Warren Lee