During The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 Tour of China, Music Director Eugene Ormandy (center) visited the Great Wall with Mr. Liu of the Friendship Committee (the official tour host group), Gretel Ormandy (partially hidden at left), and Orchestra Board President C. Wanton Balis (right). Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra
Sixteen-year old Tan Dun worked in the rice fields in the Huangjin Commune in South Central China, following Chairman Mao’s edict that educated youth must be “re-educated.” One afternoon, he heard beautiful but strange music filtering across the fields from the village loudspeaker, a broadcast of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing in Bejing. The teenager paused in his work. The fact that the orchestra was in Beijing was unique. This was 1973, and China had been closed to the world for almost a quarter century, classical music had been banned for almost a decade. As Tan Dun listened, he vowed that he would follow his passion for music.
Tan Dun kept that promise. In 2001, he received an Academy Award for his musical score in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Today, he has become one of a handful of highly-respected composers in the world.
“You hear stories like that…” said Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Davyd Booth who performed that ’73 concert. “Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, the China trip is real great. This is my job.’ And then you suddenly realize that the thing that you’re doing and the experience that you have can affect people so incredibly strongly…deeply…in such a life-changing way.”
Since 1973, China has gone from having no Western music to being one of the greatest consumers of and contributors to the classical music world. Classical music, rather than being shunned, is considered a mark of an educated person. Orchestras and conservatories continue to pop up all over the country. Chinese musicians are treated with rock-star status. And now, the U.S. looks to China for help.
The Evils of Classical
At the end of World War II, China fell into a civil war that ended when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Communist Leader Chairman Mao Zedong took power. Mao closed China’s borders and went on to promote a series of campaigns, one of which was the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76. This campaign demonized the old traditions, the wealthy people, intellectuals, those exposed to the West, and classical music.
New York Philharmonic cellist Qiang Tu, whose father was the principal cellist for China’s Central Broadcasting Symphony, recalled: “For a while everything just stopped. He [Qiang’s father] was sent into the countryside to plant vegetables. No more classical music was played. No matter what kind of instrument you played, publicly you had to play Chinese music.”
“We were only allowed to practice the revolutionary Peking opera and ballet,” said musicologist Li Wei. “There were eight operas. They were composed with revolutionary content. So they were okay.”
While the Chinese government’s draconian policies made some people fearful, it made others hold onto their music tighter. When Qiang Tu’s father returned from the countryside, he enlisted the help of friends from a music factory to build Qiang a cello. “I still remember all my father’s friends. Every Wednesday when they have their holiday—the factory has their rest on Wednesdays—they all came on their bicycles to our small courtyard. They start from morning to late afternoon to help him make us the instrument.” Tu went on to become the first Chinese-American musician to join a U.S. Orchestra.
“A lot of people practiced classical a little bit,” added musicologist Li Wei. “I actually - when I practiced I closed my windows, put my curtains on and used mute to practice. I just didn’t want people to hear. If people heard they probably would just blackmail me or criticize me. So I don’t want that trouble. That’s the Cultural Revolution.”
It was into this tense, fearful atmosphere that President Nixon entered in 1972. A year later, in an effort to cajole China’s doors open, Nixon arranged for a cultural exchange which included not only the famous ping-pong match that lent the name to “ping-pong diplomacy,” but a visit from the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Davyd Booth remembered that trip to Beijing well. “Everyone’s hairstyle—whether they were male or female—was pretty much the same. They all dressed alike. There were very few buildings, especially no tall skyscrapers. (The city) was full of farmers. And…I never saw so many bicycles in my life…At certain times of the day, there would be nothing but this unbelievable sea of bicycles. It was so different at the time from anything you could possibly imagine.”
Photo courtesy of Philedelphia Orchestra
The performance was not without its hitches. Madame Mao — Jiang Qing — who was later sentenced to life in prison for her role in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, was in charge of this event. She decided last-minute that she wanted the orchestra to play Beethoven’s 6th symphony – Pastoral — rather than the already-agreed-upon-over-months-of-negotiating-back-and-forth Fifth Symphony. Not only did Maestro Ormandy hate Beethoven’s Sixth, but they hadn’t brought the music.
“Mrs. Mao was a really tiny lady…but everybody…kowtowed to her,” recalled Booth. “We had to borrow the music.”
This was not easy at the time. Madame Mao had her people scour far and wide for what turned out to be handwritten — and not totally accurately — scores. The musicians, familiar with the symphony, muddled through quite well. So, they were surprised by the audience’s response.
“Ormandy got really upset and almost had a meltdown in his dressing room because of the applause,” said Booth. “Of course everyone looked toward Mrs. Mao, and everybody’s reaction – it wasn’t that overwhelming.”
During The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 Tour of China, Music Director Eugene Ormandy led a rehearsal with the Central Philharmonic Society of China. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra
While the applause was tepid and tentative, the music forged an unbreakable bond. “You know, they make it sort of a hackneyed thing that ‘music is a great universal language,’” said Booth. “But it’s really true. You can play music…and you can develop friendships with people just through the music…It [the ’73 Concert Tour] was an eye-opening experience for the Chinese. Now, China is one of the biggest markets for classical music. Ever since the ’73 thing, Classical music has just — I mean it’s been almost like a volcanic eruption.”
Crazy Over Classical
Today, the Chinese are both the greatest consumers and the most amazing contributors to classical music. Composers like Tan Dun, and pianists like Lang Lang and Yuja Wang are celebrated as superstars. Music once given tepid applause is now wildly embraced.
“There are so many orchestras in China in the past few years that have come up,” said S.F. Violinist Jay Liu. “And the government is behind them. Every small cities, they have a new orchestra. Even in Tibet. Even in Inner Mongolia.”
“Today it’s considered a mark of prestige to have a symphony orchestra,” said Sheila Melvin, who has written two books on classical music in China, and whose husband Dr. Jindong Cai is one of the producers of the upcoming film, Beethoven in Beijing. “So they’re all over the country…There are over 70 orchestras now, and many of them started in the past five years.”
While the number of orchestras is small compared to the U.S. (1,200), American orchestras are dependent on an aging crowd, on donations, on philanthropic sponsors.
“One thing I always notice,” said Melvin. “Is how young the audience is, which is kind of the exact opposite of what you notice when you go to a concert in the U.S. [In China,] there’s lots of young people. It’s a hot date to go to a symphony together.”
Added another producer of Beethoven in Beijing, veteran Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Jennifer Lin: “There are scalpers outside the theater scalping tickets. That doesn’t happen with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I can tell you that.”
Cellist Qiang Tu weighed in, remembering his 2008 tour with the NY Philharmonic. “The people are really crazy with our performance. The first half we played Mozart’s Symphony #8, and the people were so overwhelmed that we had to come back to give the encore of the third movement…before the intermission.”
So, what has changed over the past forty-five years? What has made the difference?
“Classical is very much alive in China largely because of the government,” said Wei. “They sponsor it. They patronize it. They have a venue to display it. Right now, because China has a lot of money, they put a lot of money into it…They can even support Western symphony orchestras.”
In fact, one of those orchestras China supports is the Philadelphia Orchestra. For, despite its reputation as being one of the big five American orchestras and its history of entertaining audiences for over a hundred years, the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy in 2011. China came to the rescue.
“They basically said, ‘You come here every year,’” said Wei. “They provide everything, and basically pay a lot more than if the Philadelphia Orchestra were playing back in the United States.”
Money Isn’t Everything
Today in China, there is financial support from the government, venues to play in, enthusiastic audiences, and “an astounding number of people who are learning instruments,” said retired journalist Lin.
A fine example is that of pianist Lang Lang who began studying when he was three.
Rather than a “Tiger mom,” he had a “Tiger dad” who quit his job as a policeman and moved with Lang Lang to Beijing so that he could be trained by the best. Lang Lang’s mom stayed back at her job as a telephone operator in Shenyang, and sent them money to live on. According to musicologist Wei, when Lang Lang’s highly-respected teacher told Lang Lang he had no talent, and she would not teach him anymore, “His father said, ‘Okay. So that’s it. There’s no hope for you. You can jump out the window.’”
Instead, after months of questioning himself (at age 9), Lang Lang convinced his father to find him a new teacher. Several years later they both emigrated to the U.S. where Lang Lang studied at the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. He is now one of the most respected pianists in the world.
“He’s a really fabulous, fabulous world-star pianist,” said violinist Booth. “They say that the sale of pianos in China is practically the biggest in the world, and that literally — I’m not exaggerating when I say this — millions of people now take piano lessons hoping to become the next Lang Lang.”
The fact that Lang Lang’s Chinese teacher did not recognize his talent is dumbfounding. But, according to Wei, not that surprising: “China’s got an almost brutal education system. There’s always corruption and cheating going on. There’s all kinds of stories….If you want your child to pursue their professional career, if you want to eventually be admitted to (the top conservatories), you get to know the professors.”
Wei said that young people not only took lessons from the conservatory professors — or their assistants — at exorbitant rates, but these children took lessons to prepare for the lessons. He said, many parents are starting to think this system — of who you know and how big your ‘red packet is,’ is not worth it.
“Now I think parents generally realize,” said Wei. “I would rather spend this money, invest this money in the U.S. or other countries.”
In addition, China still has a censorship issue which stifles creativity. “There’s a lot of government interference,” said Wei. “You have to write something that has Zheng Neng Liang — or ‘Positive Energy.’ You’re supposed to glorify the Chinese Communist Party….You cannot freely write your music.”
A Reciprocal Relationship Thrives
In the past almost half a century, the U.S. and China have developed a reciprocal relationship with regard to Classical music. China provides enthusiasm and funding, and the U.S. offers talented musicians the uninhibited/uncensored freedom to create.
“There’s a back and forth thing,” said Booth, who since ’73 has toured with the orchestra to China ten times, and each time is offered a hero’s welcome. “It is light years beyond just the relationship of going there and playing concerts.”
The Artistic Adviser to the Philadelphia Orchestra recently demonstrated this. Remember that teenager Tan Dun who listened to that ’73 concert in the fields? Well, he went on to study not only at the Central Conservatory in Beijing but also Columbia University’s School of the Arts. He not only has had an illustrious career as a composer (receiving that Academy Award), but currently is the Artistic Advisor for the 2014 Tour of Asia. In 2014, he created Nushu: The Secret Songs of Women, a 13-movement work for video, solo harp, and orchestra. The work captured the sounds of Nushu script, a secret writing system devised by women in central China who had been disallowed formal education, had been disallowed a voice. Director Tan Dun debuted his piece with the Orchestra, first in Philadelphia, then in Beijing…and then in his hometown of Hunan Province.
“It was a very emotional moment,” said Lin. “It shows how the relationship has evolved.”
The '73 Philadelphia Orchestra Tour stoked long dormant embers in the hearts of the Chinese, sparking over the past 45 years a wildfire of Classical music appreciation. Once closed to Western music, today China not only excels at teaching and performing the classics, but works with the U.S. to keep American orchestras alive. In turn the U.S. provides the nurturing, creative climate for Chinese musicians to continue thriving. What began as a one-off moment of cultural exchange has turned into a long-term reciprocal bond between the U.S. and China, a bond from which the whole world benefits.