"Let’s do something historic," declared Chen Ping, president of Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, where the Philadelphia Orchestra will base its activities. So went the conversation exactly a year ago between Chen and veteran diplomat Nicholas Platt, who had been pressed into service by orchestra president Allison Vulgamore to help create the current residency.
Historic is a big word when precedents include the Philadelphia Orchestra’s arriving in China in 1973 — the first American orchestra to play there since 1949’s communist takeover — only 19 months after President Richard Nixon made his own historic visit. Also, China visits have long involved outreach of varying forms; longtime music director Eugene Ormandy conducted the Central Philharmonic in a rehearsal during that first tour. But while early concerts there often were heard mostly by invited dignitaries, the 2012 residency is the conceptual opposite: It embraces the public more than ever, with 15 concerts outside the National Centre, some of them pop-up performances at historic sites.
Have other foreign orchestras offered such street-level availability in Beijing? "Never," Jingmao Yang, the National Centre’s vice president, said in an interview Wednesday. "It means a lot for us. The Chinese government asks artists to meet our ordinary people and citizens."
Call it a pilot project, trial balloon, or infomercial, the residency falls under the larger heading of "soft power" that includes importing and exporting films, artists, and music between the two countries. Nowhere does the Philadelphia Orchestra residency embody that more than in Friday’s concert, at which the orchestra will premiere Interrupted Dream by Chinese composer Du Wei. Additionally, one of the chamber music concerts combines Philadelphia and Beijing musicians.
"The Chinese have come to the conclusion that soft power is just as important as hard power," said Platt.
Other manifestations of that will include some talent spotting, on the Philadelphia side, for composers, players, and soloists. The National Centre Orchestra, says Yang, would love to visit Philadelphia sometime soon. With its entire residency paid for by sponsors, the orchestra can’t help but hope for enhanced fund-raising in China and elsewhere. And then there are possibilities in future years.
"We’re inviting leaders from the provinces to be our guests," said Craig Hamilton, the orchestra’s vice president for global initiatives, who revealed that three weeks have been set aside in 2013 for a return visit. "We imagine this to be something different each year. We might find ourselves in the southeast delta area. There are different needs and different strengths in all parts of the country."
But wherever the orchestra goes in the future, the National Centre — nicknamed the Egg for its elegant, oval-shaped architecture — is likely to be a home base: Next Sunday, orchestra officials are scheduled for a "partnership signing event" in Beijing. The extended plan is for an initiative of five years, not counting the current one. On the Chinese side, Yang declined to give details: "But we’re definitely looking forward to a long-term operation."
Once Chen signed on, the residency came together with such speed, one wonders why such arrangements weren’t hatched earlier. Maybe that was possible, said Platt, 76, who facilitated the 1973 visit and has since been ambassador to Pakistan, the Philippines, and Zambia, as well as holding diplomatic posts in China and Japan. But one thing is certain: The Chinese building boom had to happen first. In the last 15 years, roughly 80 new concert halls have been built all over the vast country. "Each city is competing with the other to see who has the fanciest concert hall," Platt said. What’s often lacking is world-class residents for those halls.
The orchestra decided not to work through the usual third-party concert managers when the 2012 visit was conceived, preferring to negotiate directly with the venues. Platt’s buzz phrase for the project was "play and stay." But in the beginning, it didn’t go well.
Some wondered how the orchestra could think of something so ambitious while in bankruptcy. On the Chinese side, performing-arts centers weren’t used to footing the bill for a visiting, unsubsidized orchestra. "They still don’t think that they’re rich … particularly if you’re dealing with provincial authorities," Platt said.
It was Chen who made the difference; he was excited partly by the prestige of having his venue be the first. From there, others fell into place. "We helped and advised them and gave them a hand with other theaters to make it happen," said Yang.
Since the residency was announced last fall, albeit with somewhat sketchy plans, the Philadelphia Orchestra has enjoyed a bandwagon effect. Several of the musicians were flown to China in recent weeks to be part of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as an example of positive cultural relations. The musicians reportedly scored a diplomatic coup by learning and playing Chinese folk songs.
The project is also being embraced in the loftiest of philanthropic circles. This month, Happy Rockefeller, widow of former New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller, hosted a reception in the orchestra’s honor at her Fifth Avenue apartment. Guests included Henry Kissinger; orchestra president Vulgamore was among the speakers. On May 18, Platt spoke at a high-level dinner at the Penn Club in New York, after which guests attended the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concert. In China, activities during the residency have continually been "added, changed, and sweetened," said Hamilton.
That doesn’t mean the orchestra is home free.
"The pilot terminology is important," Hamilton said. "We don’t have all the answers and we’re learning it together. What we think might work may not work after the pilot. It’s a chance to explore. And Chen has allowed us to do that. They may come up with things we haven’t thought of yet."
But there’s not a great margin for error. "The current set of sponsors have to think of it as a smash hit," Platt said. "It has to be seen as something that was important to do." At least the Beijing concerts are sold out, and have been for three weeks.
But success can be difficult to measure in China. At the first 1973 concert, Platt was called backstage at intermission because Ormandy was in a state, having mistaken the audience’s reserve for lack of interest.
"The kind of applause they’re giving you is raucous by their standards," Platt told the conductor, who was being fanned against the September heat by his wife. And far away in the provinces, a then-unknown musician named Tan Dun heard the concert on the radio and decided to devote his life to reconciling Eastern and Western music. He is now an Oscar-winning film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and classical composer.
But that was almost 40 years ago. In the decades since, most of the world’s great orchestras have visited China. Where does Philadelphia now fit in that constellation?
"If you’re riding in a taxi in Beijing and say ‘Philadelphia,’ the driver will say ‘orchestra’ without being prompted to complete the sentence," said Platt. "It’s ingrained in the local mind.
“It’s a brand."
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.