In a country that some would describe as a member of the “axis of evil,” music is teaching isolated students a universal language.
German conductor Alexander Liebreich is the first and only European conductor who has been allowed to enter North Korea to work with North Korean musicians. Now, he is given 10 days to teach a group of North Korean students how to conduct music they have never heard before.
Pyongyang Crescendo focuses on two of his students. Energetic but shy Mrs. O un Mi and her fellow student Mr. Han Song Hjong. Mrs. O has to conduct Gustav Mahler’s deeply melancholic Adagietto, but she has to fight the prejudice of her teachers that women can’t properly conduct Mahler. Will she dare to open herself and show her inner strength in front of the orchestra?
Her fellow student Mr. Han will be conducting a piece by the late German composer Hartmann that was written in the thirties in Nazi-Germany. The Nazi’s labelled it ‘degenerated music’ and the first performance of his work in the totalitarian state of North Korea is nothing more than a statement.
Filmmakers seldom get the opportunity to film in North Korea, and when they do they have to work under special conditions. Typically, the government selects who is interviewed, and it stages most scenes for the cameras.
Pyongyang Crescendo is different.
Although the filmmakers were not allowed to interview the students, they were able to follow the instruction and shoot freely at the University of Music and Dance in Pyongyang. Even when the pressure rose, with the orchestra and students failing in rehearsals, the filmmakers were not hindered in any way — a unique opportunity in a country where imperfection is something to hide from outsiders.