A journey of musical diplomacy and 50 years of friendship
By Zhao Wei  ·  2023-11-22  ·   Source: NO.47 NOVEMBER 23, 2023
The Philadelphia Orchestra and the China National Symphony Orchestra, along with the Asian American Performing Arts Center, put on a concert in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the American orchestra's first visit to China in Beijing on November 10 (XINHUA)

The concert hall of the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing erupted in thunderous applause on the evening of November 11. The excitement was palpable as the sound cascaded through the nearly full auditorium. Another wave of enthusiastic cheers echoed as the spotlight shone brightly on cellist Jan Vogler and eight members of the Philadelphia Orchestra on stage upon the encore invitation of the young conductor Sun Yifan.

"This was more than just a concert, it was a masterpiece of collaboration," Wang Jingying, a Beijing-based classical music lover, told Beijing Review. "The harmony between the orchestral artists from home and abroad was transcendent, especially their joint rendition of Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B Minor, which left us with a feeling of both nostalgia and anticipation."

Still going strong

In a resonant tribute to cultural harmony, the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first concert in China by hosting a series of cultural exchange events in the country from November 9 to 18. The ensemble's 13th visit to China was a melodious and enriching two-week journey through four cities: Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou in the eastern province of Jiangsu and Shanghai.

The tour was not only a musical endeavor, but a continuation of a historic legacy that began in September 1973. During that landmark visit, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first musical group of its kind from the United States to perform in the People's Republic of China, founded in 1949, symbolizing a profound gesture of friendship.

The visit five decades ago has been described as the larger story of "musical diplomacy," a harmonious echo of the "ping pong diplomacy" initiated in April 1971. In that earlier diplomatic effort, nine players from the American table tennis team visited China at the invitation of the Chinese Government. Both the athletic and musical people-to-people exchanges were instrumental in fostering the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979.

"It was a great trip," Nicholas Platt said in a recent interview with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The veteran diplomat, who accompanied American President Richard Nixon on his ice-breaking trip to China in 1972, also worked on the orchestra's visit one year later, calling it "one of the most important delegations" he had ever met and helped.

"I watched with my own eyes how the orchestra responded to the people, which was to get out there and engage," Platt recalled. "The orchestra just endeared themselves to the Chinese people in a whole variety of small and very natural ways. They showed Americans to be ordinary people and friendly people and wonderful musicians."

The orchestra's visit in 1973 was also a momentous occasion for Chinese musicians, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation. Accustomed to the distant echo of recordings, the prospect of live, collaborative performances with their American counterparts was a rare and exciting opportunity.

Zhu Xinren, a 90-year-old violin virtuoso, vividly recalled the profound impact of this cultural exchange at an artists' salon on October 30. He brought up a particularly memorable joint performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the centerpiece of an exclusive exchange concert.

The event was marked by an extraordinary moment of musical camaraderie.

Li Delun, conductor of the China National Symphony Orchestra, led the first movement and seamlessly passed the baton to Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for the second movement.

This impromptu arrangement created a palpable sense of excitement among the musicians. Zhu reflected on the power of the experience, noting that despite the language barrier, music emerged as a universal language that effortlessly bridged the gap. The Chinese musicians quickly synchronized under Ormandy's direction, illustrating how music can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries within a few bars, uniting artists in a common, harmonious expression.

Born in 1994, Sun said his impression of the Philadelphia Orchestra's visit was based on distant historical records and narratives from those who were there. But when the first note of the rehearsal sounded, "I felt as if I instantly connected and that had never been interrupted. The musicians from both countries opened their hearts to each other like old friends," Sun told Beijing Review.

Harmony beyond notes

United in a symphony of friendship, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the China National Symphony Orchestra, along with the vocal talents of the Asian American Performing Arts Center, put on a remarkable performance—themed 50 Years of Friendship. The concert, staged in Beijing on November 10, marked exactly half a century since the ensembles had first joined forces.

Before the performance began, Zhu reunited with his longtime friend Davyd Booth, the only member of the latest tour who joined the Philadelphia Orchestra's visit to China in 1973. Now 73, Booth was a violinist with the orchestra at that time. That first trip, filled with admiration for Beijing's unique architecture and cuisine, marked the beginning of his many travels to witness China's extraordinary development.

Booth said when he met Zhu, he was so excited he got goosebumps. He felt that this warm exchange was unbelievably valuable.

In addition to his performances at the NCPA, Booth graced the Peking Union Medical College Hospital with a special lunchtime concert on November 9, at the invitation of his colleague Philip Kates. The latter, who harbors a deep affection for both China and the hospital, has been a regular volunteer performer there. He has brought comfort through music to patients on five occasions between 2012 and 2019 and is known as Uncle Beard to his young fans in the children's ward.

The orchestra's latest tour included an important stop in Tianjin, a city that shares a special bond with Philadelphia. This relationship was formalized in 1980 when the two cities became sister cities, paving the way for numerous cultural exchanges.

Additionally, Tianjin is home to the first branch of The Juilliard School established outside its New York base, which embodies the fruitful results of Sino-American musical cooperation. This landmark of cultural synergy celebrated its grand campus opening in October 2021, marking a new chapter in the rich tapestry of artistic exchange between the two nations.

Suzhou, another destination on the orchestra's tour, is also writing its chapter in the ongoing history of Sino-American cultural relations. The city hosted the Fifth China-U.S. Sister Cities Conference from November 2 to 4. The event continued a tradition that began in 1979 when Nanjing in Jiangsu and St. Louis, Missouri, forged the first Sister Cities Alliance between China and the U.S. Since then, an extensive network of 284 sister provinces/states and sister cities relationships has blossomed. These ties, like capillaries and cells in a living organism, have become the lifeblood of Sino-American relations. They not only facilitate bilateral exchange and cooperation but also foster deeper understanding and closeness between the people of the two nations.

The conference marked a convergence of diverse minds and ideas, bringing together representatives from over 10 Chinese provinces and cities, as well as nearly 20 mayors from 22 U.S. states. With some 200 participants, the meeting became a fertile ground for dialogue and exchange.

In this multicultural environment, Chinese and American delegates explored three pivotal sub-themes: economy and employment, education and youth, and climate and environment. This collaborative forum provided an opportunity to share experiences, explore opportunities for cooperation, and engage in numerous one-on-one exchanges.

The final stop of the tour, Shanghai, is of great significance in the China-U.S. relationship. During Nixon's historic visit in 1972, the two governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué in the city, which laid the political foundation for the normalization of bilateral relationship.

For Sun, the Philadelphia Orchestra's tour symbolized more than a commemoration; it heralded a future of enduring cultural exchange between China and the U.S. "It is our duty, as the younger generation, to nurture this legacy, extending it beyond major cities to smaller communities and everyday interactions. Such widespread, frequent exchange is key to forging deeper mutual understanding and emotional connections between the two nations," Sun said.

In his recent letter to Matias Tarnopolsky, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chinese President Xi Jinping conveyed a message of sincere hope. He expressed his desire that the orchestra, along with artists from China and the U.S., play a key role in fostering stronger people-to-people ties between the two nations.

Xi's message emphasized the importance of cultural exchange and envisioned a future in which these collaborations can enhance friendship and understanding not only between China and the U.S., but throughout the world. 

(Print Edition Title: Reinforcing the Repertoire)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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