The New York Philharmonic arrived Monday in North Korea on a historic trip as the most prominent American cultural institution to visit the nuclear-armed country, run by a regime that keeps its impoverished people among the world's most isolated.
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 a 48-hour visit.
The Philharmonic's concert Tuesday was scheduled for live broadcast on North Korea's state-run TV and radio, unheard of in a country where all 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 two countries.
After successfully testing an atomic bomb in October 2006, North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and has been 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, as Pyongyang promised to do under an international agreement.
Music director Lorin Maazel said that despite the trip's political overtones, 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."
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 a guerrilla and brandishing a red scarf performed a dance dramatizing Korean resistance to Japan's colonial occupation before World War II.
Maazel gave the dancer a flower bouquet 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 in the People's Palace of Culture.
The visit came as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Monday's inauguration of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak. She said before leaving Washington she did not plan to stop in Pyongyang during a trip that also included 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 _ said Friday, while conceding the benefit of the event in giving North Koreans a window to the outside world.
The concert was slated to feature Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 and "An American in Paris" by George Gershwin. Among planned encores was the Korean folk song "Arirang," beloved in both the North and South.
The performance was scheduled to begin with the orchestra playing both countries' national anthems, and the U.S. and North Korean flags would stand together on stage, said the Philharmonic's president and executive director, Zarin Mehta.
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 the master classes for North Korean students, members of the orchestra 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 an overcast and light snow. APTN footage showed North Korean officials putting a staircase next to the plane and talking for several minutes before people started disembarking.
The orchestra posed for a group photo on the tarmac. Most of the musicians waved.
It was not known whether North Korean leader Kim would attend the concert. Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky said the group had not directly invited 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 little of the usual hustle and bustle they see in their world travels.
Their bus convoy went through the capital's center, passing a large statue of Kim's late father, the country's founder Kim Il Sung.
Musicians 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 at the Beijing airport.