The symbolic value of an American orchestra playing Chinese music on its home ground has been significant: Tan was interviewed by Yang Lan, China's most famous TV anchor, and orchestra members also got time on camera before the concert.
The piece's content is an added incentive to all the attention: Nu Shu (it means "women's writing") frames the orchestra and its harp soloist, Elizabeth Hainen, with three video screens showing elderly peasant women in Hunan Province. They are singing to each other in a secret language developed 1,000 years ago when girls and women were kept illiterate and socially isolated. The written version of the language is elongated and slim, looking nothing like the typically square Chinese calligraphy. The fact that the language is dying has proven especially intriguing to young Beijingites.
"Every five years, every five months, everything is changing [in China]. You need to cherish your own ancestry, no matter what part of the globe you're from," said Beijing art dealer Cindy Shu. No tickets were left for the Thursday concert, so she attended Tan's Wednesday lecture at the Central Conservatory of Music. "I like Tan's work all the time . . . he's always tracing his own unique way, to find himself."
Tan's message to the Central Conservatory composers and harpists who packed the auditorium was this: "You are where you come from." That message feels especially emphatic amid the current urbanization of China, as villagers pour into big-city high rises to enlarge the work force.
The question put to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Thursday news conference was how an American orchestra could hope to play anything so culturally specific. "It will not be another day at the office," he admitted. "It will be a unique moment in our lives, and we do it with humility."
And with strategy. The Nu Shu performances - in Changsha and Shenzhen as well as Beijing - benefit from the fact that the orchestra gave the piece its U.S. premiere at the Kimmel Center last fall. The tour with Tan has the same video team, and Tan is artistic adviser for the tour's China dates. "We needed him to be in the field to make sure this would all go smoothly," said Nézet-Séguin. "But the hard work came [in Philadelphia] when we did it for the first time. I feel safe. We know the road map so well."
Nu Shu's orchestral portions mainly function to support the peasant songs on the videos, which Tan describes as "music from the mountains and rivers." Though he "chose the harp as the mouthpiece for this work because of its feminine lines," says Hainen, there are moments of jazz influence. And one could walk down the halls of Beijing's Grand Hyatt Hotel and hear Philadelphia musicians assiduously practicing Chinese glissandos (along with the tricky, elastic tempos in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 that ended the program).
Tan's imagination even relates to the "Philadelphia sound": Hearing the orchestra's broadcast during its first China visit in 1973 convinced him he wanted to write music. He refers to the orchestra as making "the King Kong of sound."
Performing something as new and complicated as Nu Shu at the tour's first official concert meant that the orchestra couldn't really hit the ground running, as it generally does on foreign soil. On Wednesday evening, immediately after a reduced contingent played a "preliminary" concert with members of the National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra, crews started work on the Nu Shu setup and didn't finish until 5:30 a.m. Tweaking was still going on Thursday up to concert time, as lighting levels were adjusted and readjusted.
With anticipation high as Nézet-Séguin prepared to put the piece's mechanism in motion, a loud cell phone in one of the front rows erupted, not with a ring, but with Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." "Sorry!" the phone's owner shouted in English, though she seemed unable to turn it off.
A buzz kill, indeed. The performance went perfectly well - soloist Hainen was even more communicative than in the Philadelphia performances - though things seemed to have started on the wrong foot. In contrast, the Tchaikovsky symphony achieved great intensity despite rough edges and was better received, with European-style rhythmic applause. Curiously, roughly 5 percent of the seats at this sold-out concert were empty. The audience was extraordinarily young; many listeners were student-age.
Beijing has become so culturally busy that as many as five other classical-music events may be competing with the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. And changes from last year's visit are striking. The city is making greater strides towards graciousness, the air (this week, at least) is much cleaner, and there are lovely plantings along even the starkest boulevards - all evidence that one rarely knows exactly what is going on in China.
Interested (early-rising) Philadelphians can get a glimpse of the tour's progression Sunday morning at 7:30, when the orchestra's Mozart/Mahler concert will be video streamed live from Shanghai. Pre-register at www.yunbomedia.com.
BACK TO CHINA
David Patrick Stearns is traveling with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Year Three of its five-year China tour and residency venture.