PYONGYANG, North Korea - The New York Philharmonic on Monday became the most prominent U.S. cultural institution to visit isolated, nuclear-armed North Korea, and orchestra members said they hoped their musical diplomacy could bring the two nations closer together.
A stern-faced border guard checked music director Lorin Maazel's passport before he descended the steps of the plane to the tarmac, where officials welcomed him and other orchestra members with handshakes and smiles. Later, the musicians were treated to a North Korean dance program and a banquet.
North Korea made unprecedented accommodations for the orchestra, allowing a delegation of nearly 300 people, including musicians, staff and journalists, to fly into Pyongyang on a chartered plane for the 48-hour visit.
The Philharmonic's concert Tuesday will be broadcast live on North Korea's state-run TV and radio, unheard of in a country where events are carefully choreographed to bolster the personality cult of leader Kim Jong Il.
The Philharmonic accepted the North's invitation to play last year, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, at a time of rare optimism in the long-running nuclear standoff involving the countries.
After successfully testing an atomic bomb in October 2006, North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and is working to disable it in exchange for aid and removal from U.S. terrorism and sanctions blacklists.
But disarmament has stalled this year because of what Washington says is North Korea's failure to give a full declaration of its atomic programs to be dismantled, something it promised to do under an international agreement.
Maazel said despite the political overtones of the trip, it was the right decision to go.
"I think it would have been a great mistake not to accept their invitation," he said after arriving at the Pyongyang airport.
"I am a musician and not a politician. Music has always traditionally been an arena, an area where people make contact. It's neutral, it's entertainment, it's person to person," Maazel said.
He said if the music moves the audience, "we will have made whatever contribution we can make to bringing our peoples just one tiny step closer."
Later, Maazel and orchestra members attended a performance that featured folk dancers and was largely devoid of the ideological content typical of most North Korean shows. Only the last number was overtly political: A woman dressed as guerrilla and brandishing a red scarf performed a dance dramatizing Korean resistance to Japan's colonial occupation before World War II.
Maazel presented a bouquet of flowers to the dancer and later praised the performers for their devotion. "Through our music, through our art, we will be able to express our friendly feelings to North Korean artists and the North Korean people," he said in a toast at a banquet inside the People's Palace of Culture.
The visit came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Monday's inauguration of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, in Seoul. She said before leaving Washington she had no plans to stop in Pyongyang during a trip that also takes her to China and Japan.
"I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea," Rice, a classical pianist herself, said Friday, while conceding the benefit of the event in giving North Koreans a window to the outside world.
The concert will feature Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 and "An American in Paris" by Gershwin. Among the encores planned is the Korean folk song "Arirang" — beloved in both the North and South.
The performance will begin with the orchestra playing both the U.S. and North Korean national anthems, and the two countries' national flags will stand together on stage, said Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's president and executive director.
Mehta told reporters Monday before leaving Beijing that politics was not part of the trip. "We are going to do master classes. We'll do chamber music, rehearsals ... that's what we're there for. Politics is not our game. We play music," he said.
Besides giving master classes for North Korean students, Philharmonic musicians will also play chamber music with members of the North's State Symphony Orchestra.
The Asiana Airlines plane carrying the orchestra from South Korea landed in overcast conditions with light snow. APTN footage showed North Korean officials putting a staircase next to the plane and holding a discussion for several minutes before people started to disembark. The orchestra posed for a group photo on the tarmac with most of the musicians waving.
It was not known whether North Korean leader Kim would attend the concert. Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky said the group had not directly extended an invitation to him.
The Swedish Embassy, which handles U.S. interests in the North because the countries have no formal diplomatic relations, was discussing the guest list for the event with the North Korean Foreign Ministry, he said.
On the trip into Pyongyang from the airport, the musicians saw snow-covered parks and people riding bicycles but not a lot of the usual hustle and bustle they would be accustomed to on their world travels.
The convoy of buses passed through the center of the capital, passing a large statue of Kim's late father and the country's national founder Kim Il Sung.
Musicians preparing for the trip said they hoped personal contacts with North Koreans could help bring the countries closer.
"I think the openness is the most important issue here, and this is going to be the groundbreaking start of the whole thing. We're making music together and playing for the people and I think that this will be a great, great contribution," Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said in Beijing.
PBS-TV's "Great Performances" will air the concert on Thursday night in most of the United States (check local listings). In New York, it will be broadcast Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST.