Third time around, both orchestra and China know the drill

The Philadelphia Orchestra, shown playing in Tianjin in 2013, has 36 tour events scheduled, including concerts with local ensembles.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, shown playing in Tianjin in 2013, has 36 tour events scheduled, including concerts with local ensembles. (JAN REGAN / Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: May 18, 2014

Words to the wise for any U.S. symphony orchestras touring China: Be prepared for tougher-than-tough negotiations, last-minute changes at departure, and below-scale fees.

The Philadelphia Orchestra knows plenty about the first two as it departs on the third annual tour in its five-year China residency plan. But the orchestra this year is significantly rewriting the money part. By conducting its own negotiations and cultivating high-end sponsors, its 21/2-week tour - starting Wednesday in Beijing, stopping in Tokyo June 3, and ending June 5 in Taiwan - is expected to net $1 million (give or take $200,000) for the orchestra's operations. Previous visits covered expenses, but not like this.

"There are more [Chinese] cities than we can possibly accommodate, even in the next two years. It's a little overwhelming. but it feels great to say that," said Craig Hamilton, the ensemble's vice president of global initiatives and government relations.

One of the tour's sponsors, the Philadelphia law firm White & Williams, has expanded its support to the orchestra's regular season in Philadelphia. Business contacts in China are also making introductions to potential sponsors for the 2015 tour of Europe. That saturated market offers essential prestige but often comes with the kind of deficit the post-bankruptcy Philadelphia Orchestra can't allow, Hamilton said.

Money doesn't rule, however. Though fees in China have improved every year (he won't say how much), the orchestra could have made better money in Singapore and Seoul. But "it's important we keep our focus on China," he said.

Increasingly, music is high priority in the People's Republic. Reportedly, eight of 10 middle-class children learn to play an instrument, sometimes Eastern, sometimes Western. Comparing his two visits to China with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, in 2008 and 2013, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said, "I felt a raw appreciation . . . this live, in-the-moment reaction that I find fascinating. This is why we go to China."

"Every major orchestra is either talking about or already touring China," said Earl Blackburn, senior vice president at Opus Three Artists in New York, who works with numerous orchestras on these tours but also recalls early-'90s classical concerts in China during which audiences talked throughout and hummed along with encores if the tune was familiar.

Now, he says, China has classical music infrastructure and can anticipate an orchestra's needs. "They're stepping up to the plate hugely, more than even 10 years ago. It's a new ball game there."

In fact, the Philadelphians will be following the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which ended a tour of China and Japan on May 10 with Charles Dutoit - Philadelphia Orchestra conductor laureate. A bit of thunder-stealing, perhaps?

"I'm sorry, but who is the Boston Symphony?" Hamilton asked, only half-kidding. "My attention is focused on Philadelphia. It's the truth."

And that's what it takes for the orchestra to conduct its own negotiations, which can involve waiting well over a month for a proposed concert to receive government approval, during which negotiations, on the Chinese side, keep grinding.

"It's not for the faint of heart. It's rewarding but very difficult. And I'm not alone," said Hamilton. "I've never had a [concert] date go down. Some people have."

Once there, lack of experience on the Chinese side can be conspicuous. The New Zealand Ballet, in a 2013 visit to Philadelphia's sister city Tianjin, found the new Tianjin Grand Theatre unsympathetic to its request for reduced air-conditioning for the sake of the dancers' muscles. The date was canceled, and the company's sets and costumes were locked in hall. Only diplomatic intervention freed them.

"Any performing arts center takes a good seven to 10 years before management gets it down," says Hamilton, adding that Tianjin could figure in his future plans.

At least the classical-world problems are out in the open. In the movie world, China still has strict quotas on importing U.S. films - only 34 a year - often with puzzling, multiple rounds of censorship that can kill marketing momentum. The visual arts face rampant plagiarism in the knock-off industry. Classical music, in contrast, generally doesn't make overt statements. Much of it is in the public domain. And while China's orchestras are improving, there's no equaling the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Typically, it plays China's major cities with repertoire that goes well even when the players are jet- lagged. During this tour, however, concerts in Beijing (Thursday and Friday) and Shanghai (next Sunday) lead to less-charted territory - Changsha (May 27) and Shenzhen (May 29). Throughout, they'll be playing the complex, co-commissioned piece by Tan Dun called Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, which features orchestra harpist Elizabeth Hainen and a sophisticated video apparatus, 13 micro-films of peasant women singing their secret language.

Looking after this special-needs piece is one reason the Chinese composer, who keeps a well-staffed office in Shanghai, is artistic adviser for these dates. And in Tan's home city of Changsha, women who appear in the videos will be in attendance.

More conventional tour repertoire includes Mozart's Symphony No. 41, Mahler's Symphony No. 1, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 - even though Nézet-Séguin conducted the last with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on its 2013 Asian tour.

"It's a funny dance, programming on tour. You have to start with a great idea and know that it will change," said Nézet-Séguin. "We suggested Bruckner 9th but that was too difficult for the promoter to take. Maybe it's a good thing. All those tremolos. All that intensity."

They may be high-profile, but these concerts are only a fraction of the 36 events scheduled so far. In most cities, orchestra members will play side-by-side concerts with local ensembles, either blended with them or sharing half the program. Pop-up concerts are also designed to mix with the public outside the concert halls.

The most picturesque promises to be May 31 in the ruins of Macau's Portuguese-built St. Paul's Cathedral, which dates to the 16th century. Unfortunately, the tropical climate may well involve 100 degrees with 99 percent humidity. No surprise the event is at 11 a.m.

How much Nézet-Séguin participates remains to be seen. "I don't have an instrument, right? So it's difficult for me to pop up on the street and start something," he said. "Maybe there will be a flash mob?"

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