Casino concerts cap the orchestra's China tour

Donald Runnicles conducts the orchestra during Saturday's sold- out concert in Macau. The final concert of the orchestra's touris scheduled for Sunday.
Donald Runnicles conducts the orchestra during Saturday's sold- out concert in Macau. The final concert of the orchestra's touris scheduled for Sunday. (JAN REGAN)
Posted: June 10, 2013

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 visit, building on this long relationship.

MACAU - Where else does your hotel serve cupcakes and ice cream for breakfast? And offer wake-up calls from Shrek? In Cantonese?

This pleasure capital of Asia - one that is said to outstrip Las Vegas for superficial splendor - is only the latest unlikely host of the Philadelphia Orchestra on its 40th anniversary tour of China, but in two concerts that were sold out before Friday's video of the musicians playing Dvorak on their rain-delayed flight went viral (with 102,000 You Tube hits in 24 hours).

The man behind Saturday's and Sunday's concerts at the Venetian - in a theater built for Cirque de Soleil - is familiar to the gaming industries in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, was Donald Trump's CEO, and helped craft Pennsylvania's pro-gaming legislation.

Ed Tracy, the 60-year-old CEO of Sands China Ltd., has been a key figure in the growth of the Cotai area of semiautonomous Macau - a strip of reclaimed land only blocks from the Portuguese old town that has acquired one architecturally outrageous resort hotel after another in the last five years. But as strong as Tracy's ties are to the Philadelphia area, where he lived on and off for 20 years and will again when he retires, booking the orchestra wasn't about sentimental attachments.

"To say that we thought this through," he said Saturday, "is an understatement."

He has already hosted such light classical events as a Chinese version of The Nutcracker and the Three Chinese Tenors. But after a trial-balloon chamber music concert during last year's Philadelphia Orchestra tour of China, he booked the whole group with guest conductor Donald Runnicles, and in the process, made a startling discovery. While negotiating with the Rolling Stones for some 2014 concerts, he did an informal survey of his young Asian staff members and discovered that more knew about Philadelphia Orchestra than about the venerable rock group.

Tracy takes such things to heart: "The most important thing you can do in a foreign country is listen. Listen to the people who live there . . . the customers . . . what the government is asking you, and you'll figure it out."

The combined resources of the Sands-owned properties (which include the Venetian, the Sheraton, and others) comprise 600 shops, 10,000 hotel rooms averaging 90 percent capacity, 100 restaurants, and a few zillion slot machines, in world that doesn't follow American expectations.

Canals and gondolas

Cirque de Soleil didn't really fly here, partly because acrobatics are so much a part of Chinese culture. But the entertainment priority at the Venetian - designed as an indoor rendering of Venice with simulated canals, and gondolas snaking past Chanel and Rolex stores - is music. Some 200 entertainers are on staff, many giving impromptu concerts on boats and bridges when not impersonating animated characters such as Shrek (thanks to a recent deal with DreamWorks).

Gaming is still the core business, but the entertainment Tracy has brought in during his three years here has created a competitive edge. The Sands is one of Asia's largest American investors - $10 billion by the end of next year - thanks to relatively close proximity to prosperous communities in China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

How does the Philadelphia Orchestra fit into this? The rising Chinese middle class is traveling to the world's cultural capitals. "They're seeing and experiencing things that raise their level of sophistication," he says, "and when they're back home they want experiences that reflect that newfound enthusiasm."

But in a gambling capital with a film noir-ish past?

In China, gaming doesn't have the post-Victorian stigma that exists in parts of the West. Betting is ingrained in the culture, all the way back to the game of mah-jongg. So hearing the orchestra in a 70-minute intermissionless concert might not seem so unusual in a world where Beethoven isn't exclusively linked to Carnegie Hall. And while Tracy just enjoyed a wild-fire 24-hour ticket sellout for a Rihanna concert, he doesn't necessarily book events on the basis of their commercial potential.

The sound

"There is the commercial aspect," he says. "But does it enhance our reputation? Does it do something for the community? Scoring 100 points in the second two categories is just as important. I'd like to present the orchestra on an annual basis."

These are not the words of a gambler. Tracy never plays in the casinos he runs: "I only bet on sure things."

It must be said that he stacked the cards in favor of the orchestra with tickets priced at less than $15, for a concert consisting of shorter pieces by Dvorak and Elgar plus the new, more challenging Concertino Cusqueño by Gabriela Lena Frank.

Yet the concert had hidden costs. Designed in the spirit of Radio City Music Hall, the Venetian has only 1,800 seats but high-soaring ceilings without sightline-impairing balconies - a lot of space to fill. The orchestra was amplified, though no more than at its summer concerts at the Mann Center. But the theater's heavily carpeted surfaces meant that any energy generated by the audience was muted and probably not felt by the orchestra. The natural tendency, then, is to play harder. But in the preconcert sound check, Runnicles stopped during Strauss' Don Juan and pleaded with the musicians not to.

"Let's make this as impressionistic as we can," he said. "Just really go for the quality of the sound." But a well-meaning sound engineer added an artificial ambience to the strings that made the orchestra sound even more distant.

The concert was a serious effort on the part of the Venetian, with a handsome, informative program book. But amplification wasn't the only compromise: Air-conditioning fans wrapped the Philadelphia sound in an aural haze. Might such problems be addressed for Sunday's more serious Brahms Symphony No. 2, at the tour's final concert?


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynew.com.

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