How Philly’s orchestra became a rare link between China and the US

by Ann Scott Tyson from The Christian Science Monitor, Beijing

When formal diplomatic channels grow cold, countries must rely on softer forms of statecraft. For 50 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has played a singular role in connecting America and China through the universal love of music.

154842Pete Checchia/Courtesy of The Philadelphia OrchestraYiwen Lu (left, on jinghu) and Yifei Fu (right, on drum) perform the traditional Chinese sing “Deep Night” with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philadelphia. They are led by Long Yu, chief conductor of the China Philharmonic.

| BEIJING - A big red drum booms, and then a lilting jinghu – a Chinese bowed string instrument – draws the audience of more than 2,000 people into the ancient Peking opera tune “Deep Night” conducted by Long Yu, chief conductor of the China Philharmonic. 

The concert to usher in the Lunar New Year is happening not in Beijing, but in the City of Brotherly Love, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and guest soloists. 

The orchestra’s unique role in bringing together American and Chinese musicians extends far beyond celebrating the Year of the Dragon, which begins Feb. 10. It’s a powerful form of diplomacy – especially amid high U.S.-China tensions, says Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

As relations between Beijing and Washington sank into a deep freeze during the pandemic, the orchestra was one of the few points of warm connection, he says, recalling a meeting he had with a senior Chinese diplomat.

“The [diplomat] said to me, ‘Please keep doing what you’re doing – sometimes it’s the only thing that’s working between our nations,’” says Mr. Tarnopolsky.

“It reminds us that a great orchestra like Philadelphia’s touches hearts in the moment of performance and far, far beyond,” he says, calling the orchestra’s work in China “a multigenerational project.”

Indeed, the orchestra’s long-standing ties with China – it recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its pathbreaking 1973 China tour – give it an outsize role in today’s broader push by Beijing and Washington to stabilize relations by strengthening people-to-people connections.

154842Hsinhua News Agency/AP/FileThe Philadelphia Orchestra Group of the United States was welcomed by the Chinese audience as it gave a concert in what was then called Peking on Sept. 14, 1973.

“To ensure the two major countries can get along, a right perception of each other is more important than anything else,” said Huang Ping, consul general of China’s New York Consulate, at a Jan. 16 event highlighting upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations such as concerts, art exhibits, and culinary festivals in the eastern United States. “We need to enhance people-to-people exchanges to deepen our mutual understanding.”

The U.S. and China are also working to boost direct flights and cultural, sports, and student exchanges – an outcome of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco last year. Mr. Xi said China is ready to welcome 50,000 U.S. students on exchange and study programs over the next five years. In China, the U.S. students “will be greeted with warmth and affection,” Mr. Huang wrote to the Monitor. “Please visit.” 

Symbol of American goodwill

When violinist Davyd Booth first came to China with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973, during Mao Zedong’s radical Cultural Revolution, the U.S. and China were seeking to rebuild ties after a quarter century of hostility and estrangement.

Following his historic 1972 China trip, President Richard Nixon had decided to send his favorite orchestra, then conducted by Eugene Ormandy, as cultural emissaries.

The trip was sensitive. Much art and music was banned by the Communist regime as bourgeois. Word came that Mr. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, insisted at the last minute that Mr. Ormandy change the program and conduct Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, about rural life, rather than the Fifth, about fate. Mr. Ormandy, who disliked the Sixth, was outraged. “All of a sudden I heard [Mr. Ormandy] scream, ‘I will not conduct that symphony!’” Mr. Booth, who was in a nearby dressing room, recalls.

Ultimately, American diplomat Nicholas Platt persuaded Mr. Ormandy to conduct the Sixth – before a pleased Madame Mao in the front row. The trip was a success. Surprisingly, the concerts were broadcast nationwide, giving hundreds of millions of Chinese their first taste of Western music in years.

Jennifer Lin, director of “Beethoven in Beijing,” a documentary about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s legacy in China, compares the phenomenon to the famous exchange of Chinese and American table tennis players in the early 1970s.

“Everyone knows about pingpong diplomacy,” she says, “but music diplomacy had an equal impact on the relationship.”

For Chinese people, hearing the orchestra’s Western repertoire in 1973 “was like being in the desert and getting a long drink of water – everyone was craving the music but they couldn’t perform it,” she says.

Quenching that thirst, if only briefly, the Philadelphia Orchestra won a unique reputation in China – not only for exposing people to outside music but also for being a symbol of American goodwill.

154842Todd Rosenberg/Courtesy of The Philadelphia OrchestraAmerican violinist Davyd Booth (center) receives flowers after performing at a Nov. 10 concert in Beijing, marking the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Orchestra's first trip to China. Mr. Booth took part in the 1973 trip and several others.

Tan Dun, then a middle school student from Hunan province laboring on a communal farm, heard the bold notes of the Beethoven symphony from a village loudspeaker in 1973 and was captivated. After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 ushered in a musical revival in China, Mr. Tan joined a conservatory, studied in New York, and became a world-renowned Chinese American composer and conductor. He has earned a Grammy Award, Academy Award, and many others, and is dean of the Bard Conservatory of Music in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

“We have played a lot of his music and he’s conducted some,” says Mr. Booth of Mr. Tan’s ongoing ties with the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

The power to humanize

Last November, Tristan Rais-Sherman, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, got his first experience directing Chinese music at the 50th-anniversary joint performance with the China National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing.

Leading musicians through the soft tones of “The Moon Reflecting on Er-Quan Spring” was “one of the most challenging things on the program,” he says. “It’s a long piece with all these little phrases that need precise care, like a little jewel.”

On his first trip to China, he also discovered how similar Chinese and American musicians are. “It was comforting in a way,” he says. “They have the same struggles, the same issues, and they require the same help.”

The concert, which received congratulatory messages from Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden, concluded with a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and multiple encores. 

The deep collaboration between the musicians, and the shared experience of the audience, are ways that music brings people together, says Mr. Tarnopolsky after the concert.

Music helps to “humanize Americans to Chinese people, and Chinese people to Americans,” he says. “Despite all the ups and downs, the Philadelphia Orchestra continues to come to China. ... When things are tough, it’s even more important.”

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Last edited 2/5/2024 4:24:35 PM

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