China's orchestra evolution

Children posed with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra who were in the ensemble that first visited China in 1973. To mark the 40th anniversary tour, children presented them with flowers upon their arrival in Shanghai Wednesday.
Children posed with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra who were in the ensemble that first visited China in 1973. To mark the 40th anniversary tour, children presented them with flowers upon their arrival in Shanghai Wednesday. (JAN REGAN / Philadelphia Orchestra)

In 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra made history in China, Inquirer music critic Daniel Webster was there. Now David Patrick Stearns reports on the 2013 tour and residency, building on this long relationship.

Posted: May 31, 2013

SHANGHAI - After 14 hours in the tiny seats of a trans-global flight, the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians might question the reasons for performing so far from home, so regularly, in what is becoming an annual springtime visit to China.

It's tough. The 6-foot-4 cellist Richard Harlow seemed to spend as much time stretching his legs in the aisle as he did sitting. Another cellist, Robert Cafaro, could only tune out the packed-to-the-gills flight by sleeping in his sunglasses as the plane traveled past Greenland, over the northern ice cap and south, high above Russian cities most people hadn't heard of.

But once on the ground in Shanghai, cameras flashed, TV crews came in for close-ups, and large bouquets of roses greeted the nine musicians who were part of the original 1973 debut, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American ensemble to play in the People's Republic of China since the Maoist revolution.

What a different world it is now. "It's unrecognizable," said diplomat Nicholas Platt, who greeted the orchestra's 1973 arrival and did so again Wednesday afternoon. "But the spirit is there." Having facilitated the original visit, Platt is now the orchestra's adviser for its residency tours.

In that 1973 spirit - in which the Chinese worked overtime to show the Philadelphians their culture - three Chinese musicians who performed for the visiting players 40 years ago were at the Pudong Airport news conference: Lin Yang Yang, choreographer of the famous ballet The White Haired Woman, performed in the orchestra's honor; Shi Zhongqin, who danced the title role, and 92-year-old flutist Lu Chunlin, who wrote a piece for Wednesday's event titled "Festival Dances," played on a folk flute that sounded more like a clarinet.

In 2013, the orchestra will play in halls that are architectural wonders, as well as at the Venetian casino resort in the gambling mecca of Macau.

In contrast, the 1973 visit was as much diplomatic as artistic. It was announced only a few months before it happened, after reports that President Richard M. Nixon had attended orchestra concerts at the Academy of Music.

Nobody knew what to expect from this closed society, including the charter flight's apprehensive pilot as he circled over Beijing, recalls violinist Herbert Light.

"It looked like an old country airport," he said. "No activity. It was at night. We couldn't believe this was the capital of a huge country."

The musicians feared their hotel rooms were bugged and were careful about what they said behind closed doors. When out on the street, dressed as an American would be, harpist Margarita Montanaro drew crowds: She was mobbed by Chinese women wearing the standard Mao jackets and pants - they had never seen anyone in a dress.

"They told us walk in twos or threes in public," said violinist Booker Rowe. "More than that would cause an international incident."

The cityscape was mostly low buildings surrounded by bare packed earth - no grass - recalled violinist Herold Klein. Insects were few. "Mao had issued flyswatters and quotas for killing flies," said violinist Davyd Booth.

One musician committed a major faux pas when he told a Chinese official that Shanghai was his favorite of the cities on the tour; Beijing was considered to be the ideal communist metropolis.

Montanaro and her clarinetist husband, Donald, recall one bus trip that abruptly made an unannounced U-turn. "People were very frightened," she said, "Nobody knew what was going on."

What was going on was the sudden decision by Jiang Qing - Madame Mao - to have her photo taken with the orchestra, requiring that the bus return them to the concert hall. During the visit she also demanded that Beethoven's programmed Symphony No. 5 be replaced by her personal favorite, his Symphony No. 6. Because the orchestra hadn't brought its parts for that work, local copies were unearthed.

"They were written by hand," said Light, "and full of mistakes. Everybody knew the symphony very well, so we would be playing along and - oops - wrong note!

"We all knew that Madame Mao was the one in charge."

Nonetheless, the musicians were charmed by her - and later shocked at her public belligerence after her husband's death and her falling from power, not to mention the reports of atrocities that emerged over the years. "She gave us little silk envelopes that had lotus seeds from her own garden," says Booth.

Today, you walk down the street in Shanghai, notice an unfinished skyscraper, and joke that it'll probably be finished by morning, such is the intensity of China's building boom. And foreigners are now a common sight. Well, maybe not that common - during last spring's China visit, African American bassist Joseph Conyers was stopped on the street and told, "You look just like Obama!" (He doesn't).


>Inquirer.com

David Patrick Stearns reports from China with the Philadelphia Orchestra at www.inquirer.com/entertainment


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Follow his coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra in China at www.inquirer.com/entertainment.

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