In 1973, a young U.S. diplomat named Nicholas Platt was assigned the delicate task of organizing a China tour for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first American orchestra to play in the People’s Republic since its founding in 1949.
The Cultural Revolution had torn China apart and the risks such a venture faced were legion, recalls Platt.
The much-feared Madame Mao, wife of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, closely controlled all aspects of culture. Nervous Chinese officials rejected many suggestions for the musical program as “decadent.”
But the orchestra’s visit, with Eugene Ormandy at the helm, became a milestone in U.S.-Chinese relations, inspiring a Chinese fascination with Western classical music and providing a breakthrough in relations between the two countries.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra became a household word in China,” Platt recalls.
Now, after 12 concert tours to China, the orchestra is embarking on a five-city tour this month to mark 40 years of U.S.-China relations — at a time when those relations are severely strained by strategic tensions.
“I try to figure out how the orchestra can manage the shoals of the relationship,” I was told by Platt, whose longtime China experience informs his role as the senior adviser for tours to China. And there is much to be learned from the orchestra’s success.
It is fascinating to observe the deep emotions the Philadelphia Orchestra still inspires among Chinese officials. Such emotions date back to the impact of the 1973 visit, when its Beijing performance was attended by Madame Mao, who turned out to like classical music, and it was broadcast nationwide.
The celebrated Chinese contemporary classical composer Tan Dun told Platt he heard the broadcast blared out in a commune where he had been sent down to receive “education” through labor. It inspired him to spend the rest of his life working to fuse Western and Chinese music and popularize the two traditions.
Ambassador Huang Ping, the current Chinese consul general in New York City, who was in Philadelphia in January for a joint performance of the orchestra and the Shanghai Philharmonic, also waxed emotional about the impact of the orchestra’s visit.
He recalled coming of age during China’s Cultural Revolution when Western music was banned; his first exposure to it came in 1979 when he entered university. “We didn’t have the money to buy instruments,” he told me, “but on campus the loudspeaker would play classical music, and I learned to appreciate it.”
Chinese radio began broadcasting Western symphonies and “explaining them piece by piece. Soon I became a fan of the Philadelphia Orchestra. These masterpieces are so beautiful you fall in love.”
“When I was based in London I spent all my money on CDs, Beethoven and Mozart,” Huang continued. He now has every recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Like many Chinese parents, Huang bought his son a piano at age 4. “But he gave it up at 5,” the ambassador recalled wistfully. “Nowadays everyone wants to train their son to become Lang Lang,” the international virtuoso who studied with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music.
Platt adds that “there is now a Chinese middle class that can afford to pay the ticket (for piano instruction). They want their kids to take music lessons.” And many talented young Chinese come to top U.S. music schools to polish their talents, including 11 percent of Curtis enrollment this academic year.
Starting in 2012, the Philadelphia Orchestra has built on this Chinese fascination by expanding its musical interactions to a wider level. “We billed it as a ‘two-way street,’ “ says Platt, meaning that the orchestra designed a multiyear “residency” program in which its musicians stay in the Chinese cities they visit and conduct master classes, and pop-up public concerts in community venues.
“This all began,” Platt says, “with the example of the Philadelphia Orchestra way back then and their talent for meeting people. In 1973, the first thing they did in front of their hotel was to pull out their Frisbees.”
Now the orchestra offers seminars in China in ensemble training and orchestra management. This includes tips on how to fill all the new concert halls and conservatories that are being built in second- and third-tier urban centers.
So it is not so much that the orchestra surmounts politics as that it operates below the tensions at top government levels. More and more, says Platt, “U.S.-Chinese cultural relationships are managed and funded by municipalities and private Chinese sponsors or companies.”
In a way, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s intense China ties provide a litmus test of whether nonpolitical cultural links have become so multilayered that they can survive the nationalist currents in Washington and Beijing. And so mutually beneficial that both governments seek to ensure they don’t falter.
“When we play music and play with Chinese students it is about people-to-people exchange,” says Matias Tarnopolsky, CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Whatever the political backdrop, music prevails.”