Philadelphia Orchestra musicians play on the Great Wall, one of its outreach events, in collaboration with the National Center for the Performing Arts. Photos by Jiang Dong / China Daily
The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first US orchestra to give a concert in New China. Now it's further consolidating ties with an adventurous outreach program. Chen Jie learns more.
Strolling around the Temple of Heaven with a walking stick in one hand and a camera in the other, Nicholas Platt, 76, doesn't look that much different from the other foreign visitors. His companions, however, are members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and they will not only see the sights but also perform.
Some 39 years ago, Platt was one of three members of the United States Liaison Office in Beijing who accompanied the orchestra to perform in Beijing, the first US orchestra to tour China after the founding of the People's Republic of China.
"There have been lots of dramatic changes," Platt says, as Schubert's String Quartet plays in the background at East Annex Hall.
"When we were in the Forbidden City and on the Great Wall in 1973, the government ensured orchestra members were the only ones there."
"The government was concerned. Technically, they didn't want people speak to foreigners freely. Now, the orchestra can play for tourists at the Temple of Heaven."
After that historic trip, the orchestra has returned to China on various occasions for concerts, but this time it is pushing the envelope with a Residency Week and Tour of China, in collaboration with National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA).
The idea is to get close to the general public, with some 31 outreach events in Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, and Shanghai, from May 28 to June 6 - rather than just play formal concerts.
They have played at Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, opened rehearsals to NCPA's orchestra, students of the Central Conservatory of Music and students from some special education schools. The assistant conductor Cristian Macelaru even conducted a primary school orchestra.
"It's a great experience to play at the Temple of Heaven. I know Chinese people love classical music and I hope they enjoy it," says concertmaster David Kim.
"Thanks to Mother Nature, the wind makes the music sound a bit different," says Yumi Kendall, the assistant principal cellist, who cannot hide her excitement.
"I've toured China with the orchestra four times but never did these kind of outreach events. I would like to get some connection with people in this way," adds the 31-year-old.
In early May 2010, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed at Shanghai Expo. Backstage, Allison Vulgamore, who had just become the orchestra's president and CEO, met up with Platt by chance.
"I knew he was the orchestra's long-time senior consultant and did a lot before and during the orchestra's first trip to China in 1973. We looked at each other and decided we must do something special," Vulgamore says.
Then, on May 25, 2010, China's State Councilor Liu Yandong and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed agreements at NCPA to promote educational and cultural exchanges.
Under this agreement, in September 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra and NCPA initiated a five-year musical partnership, from 2012.
"The orchestra has a long relationship with China and the 1973 trip was a milestone. But this time we are bringing something different," Vulgamore says. "We used to come, perform and go. This time, we come and stay. I love this special exchange."
At the two formal NCPA concerts on May 31 and June 1, Charles Dutoit conducted the orchestra to play Richard Strauss' Don Juan, Beethoven's Symphony No 7, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Shostakovich's Symphony No 7.
However, it was not so easy during the orchestra's 1973 visit during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
Philadelphia Orchestra's music director Eugene Ormandy proposed many programs and after the approval of Jiang Qing, former Chairman Mao Zedong's wife, they decided the repertoire before the orchestra arrived in China.
But only half-an-hour before the Pan Am 707 landed at Beijing airport, Platt received word from Jiang that the orchestra must play Beethoven's Symphony No 6 Pastoral.
But Ormandy did not like it and had not brought the score with him.
"Jiang was in charge of culture. She had her own views about Western music and Beethoven's Symphony No 6 was the only piece she really wanted," Platt recalls.
"I had to try my best to persuade Ormandy. I told him, 'Beethoven's Beethoven Sixth is very important to the Chinese people. First, Chinese people love the countryside, which Beethoven wrote of in the music. Second, the scenery and feelings Beethoven describes through his music fitted that special time in China. The storm that breaks in the third movement could be considered a 'cultural revolution' itself'."
Finally Ormandy agreed to play the piece.
Friday night's concert featured The Interruption of a Dream, composed by the 35-year-old Du Wei, and was a world premiere.
Not an official's personal request, this work was fruit of the five-year commitment between the Philadelphia Orchestra and NCPA.
NCPA started an annual Young Composers Project in 2011 to find composing talents. Du was the winner of the competition.
Her score not only won over the international jury's heart and earned her 80,000 yuan ($12,600), but it also entailed a world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Platt loves the music for its combination of Western composing techniques and Chinese musical timbre.
The former diplomat says, "No controversy about repertoires and no political implications any more. I felt it was difficult in 1973 because we were breaking new ground, but now the only complication is logistics."