Hidden from small

China: Then and Now—The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Evolving Role

April 26, 2019

Culture and sports have long been purposeful elements in Chinese diplomacy and US- China relations. A few examples:

  • The Chinese invitation to the lowly, ragtag US ping pong team to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1971 was a prelude to the Nixon-Mao breakthrough, an important signal of Chinese willingness to come together with the US against the backdrop of hostility with the USSR.
  • Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, chose a US-China basketball game as the backdrop for her public debut as a possible successor to her ailing husband.
  • A visiting US team made up of Olympic swimming and diving champions set the stage for China’s emergence as a world pool and platform power.
  • The People’s Republic of China tour of The Philadelphia Orchestra in September 1973 revolutionized Chinese perceptions of Western music and ushered in a lasting and dynamic relationship.
  • The number of Chinese who tuned into Yao Ming’s debut with the Houston Rockets in 2002 exceeded the entire population of the US.

 The establishment in 1973 of resident Liaison Offices in Washington, DC, and Beijing marked the formal beginning of cultural and sports relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China. The Liaison Offices provided support and infrastructure for US and Chinese delegations to visit each other’s countries and for Chinese and Americans to begin the process of getting to know one another. They pursued the process with a vengeance. As the head of the political section in Beijing in 1973, which covered culture and sports, I had a front row seat.

Members of the US Olympic swimming team coach Chinese swimmers in Guangzhou in 1973.

First to arrive was the team of American swimmers and divers in Guangzhou that June. Throughout the tour from Guangzhou to Changsha, Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese coaches and swimmers were preoccupied with finding the answers to two broad questions: (1) What is the training formula that produces Olympic champions? And (2) how do you increase speed by the one second that separates Olympic gold from sixth place?

The American answers were forthright. Coaches and swimmers alike acknowledged that there was a certain length and quality of training required to make a swimmer world-class competitive. But there was no set time formula.

Every swimmer was an individual and rounded into shape at different times in the season. Some needed to be in fine condition before competition began, while others competed best starting the racing season with more training remaining to be done. Still others started finely honed, slacked off, and then sharpened up again. The Chinese seemed to be seeking a mechanism into which one inserts a swimmer, turns it on, and in due course out would pop a champ. There was no such thing. But individualized training programs ran afoul of the regimentation that the communist system required. Replying to the question of how to shave that second off the clock, the American swimmers began by asking their Chinese hosts how far they swam each day. Five thousand meters came the answer. The Americans replied, we swim 5000 meters in the morning, then do two hours of calisthenics, then swim another 5000 meters in the afternoon. If you want that second, you have to work at least twice as hard. But how, the Chinese swimmers asked, can you maintain that schedule and be a soldier, worker, or peasant at the same time?

Answer: You can’t. Competing for the Olympics is a full-time job.

The Chinese took these answers to heart, first of all the divers, already accomplished gymnasts who rose quickly to become world champions. Chinese swimmers are increasingly prominent in the pool events. (Forty years later the American and Chinese swimmers celebrated that first exchange with a reunion at Fort Lauderdale. More than 200 Chinese swimmers, coaches, and divers attended, most of whom paid their own way, as a token of appreciation for these early friendly lessons.)

Nicholas Platt meets Jiang Qing.

The Chinese had loved basketball ever since the YMCA first introduced it at the turn of the 20th century. So there was intense interest, again In June 1973, when the men and women’s championship teams came to Beijing to compete with their Chinese counterparts. A capacity crowd of more than 17,000 Chinese packed the Gym in the northwest of the capital. When she made her entrance, it was clear that Madame Mao, a former Shanghai actress, was playing a new role. Her costume had changed. She was wearing a dress, not a Mao suit. It was midi-length grey gabardine, with a discreet collar and pockets. On her wrist, I was startled to note, was a Rolex watch—stainless steel but a Rolex, nonetheless. Her hair was gently but permanently waved. She wore white leather shoes with a handbag to match. Her first words of welcome were spoken slowly and in queenly tones, a tip-off to the new role she wanted to play.

As an athletic event the games were a diplomatic draw. The Chinese women ran circles around the American Champs, overweight Midwestern girls who fell down frequently to the good-natured amusement of the Chinese crowd. The US men handed out similar treatment to the Chinese male team.

In domestic political terms, Madame Mao’s performance at this first US-China basketball game turned out to be her public debut as a candidate to succeed Mao. Photographs of her in her dress appeared on newspaper front pages worldwide. Chinese viewers told me later that she seemed to be presenting herself as a modern-day Empress Wu, the legendary Tang Dynasty ruler. Her effort failed, but basketball has since become a major people-to-people force in US-China relations.

When the giant (7’6”) Shanghai star Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002, 300 million Chinese (i.e. the population of the US) watched his debut on television. Nowadays millions of Chinese tune in TV broadcasts of NBA games every week.

The Philadelphia Orchestra came in September 1973, the first American orchestra to play in the People’s Republic of China since it was founded in 1949. That extraordinary visit proved an important milestone in both the development of Western classical music in China, and the relationship between the US and China. It changed Chinese perceptions of Western music and introduced our musicians to Chinese traditional virtuoso performers.

Madame Mao, Eugene and Gretel Ormandy, US and Chinese dignitaries, and musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra pose for a photo in Beijing following one of the concerts on the Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour.

As a result, The Philadelphia Orchestra became a household word in China. The leadership concert, attended by Madame Mao in Beijing, was broadcast nationwide on the radio. Tan Dun, China’s celebrated composer, told me 30 years later that he had listened to that broadcast from a commune where he was sent for education through labor. It inspired him to spend the rest of his life working to fuse Western and Chinese music and popularize the two musical traditions to the peoples of East and West.

Western music in China has become a joint venture since Isaac Stern discovered the 10-year-old cellist Jian Wang in 1979. Chinese teachers spot and train their young talent, and Western institutions like the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School provide the finishing polish and opportunities to play abroad. China’s great artists, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Tan Dun, Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Cello Hai-Ye Ni—the list goes on and on—are products of training and experience in both places.

China has changed exponentially since 1973. A rapid urbanization program has increased the country’s wealth and power many fold. New concert halls have sprouted over the past 20 years, not only in the major cities but also in second- and third-tier urban centers, with conservatories and fledgling orchestras along with them.

In 2012 The Philadelphia Orchestra decided to take its experience in China to a new level and develop an approach to fit the changes, reaching out to the burgeoning second-tier cities and their new conservatories, orchestras, and concert halls. Taking a leaf from China’s own playbook, they devised a new “two-way street,” a multi-year “residency” program in which the musicians, rather than simply coming to a city to play a concert and then depart, would stay and do master classes and pop-up public concerts in community venues with an eye to spotting and developing local talent. Joint concerts would lead to more opportunities for Chinese musicians and composers to gain introductions in the US and plan tours there.

(L to r) Violist Che-Hung Chen, Concertmaster David Kim, violinist Daniel Han, and Acting Associate Principal Cello Yumi Kendell give a pop-up performance at the Temple of Heaven in May 2012. The concert, along with two others, took place at one of Beijing’s most historic sites to help officially launch the Orchestra’s Residency week with the general public. Photo by Chris Lee

China has become the major market for Western classical music in the world. The Philadelphia Orchestra has led the way in meeting the needs of a country with millions of music students, a growing and increasingly prosperous middle class. The parties signed a second five-year agreement in 2016. No other American orchestra is delivering this depth of, and breadth of, programming in China, and none has a longer relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Both governments regard the initiative as a poster child for people-to-people cultural exchange. At a time when growing tension and disagreement mark other aspects of the relationship, cooperation in a relatively noncontroversial area is appealing and continues to have momentum. Philadelphia Orchestra programs have spread to other parts of Asia, most notably Japan, where appreciation for Western classical music has long been established, and world-class orchestras and concert halls are abundant.

Over the years, cultural relations with China, once tiny and barely existent, have become so huge that they have assumed major strategic significance. Music exchange has taken its place beside trade, investment, travel, sports, science, and education as a regular agenda item in the strategic and economic dialogue conducted by Secretaries of State and Treasury and their Chinese counterparts.

People-to-people relations are now at the heart of the ties between us, and have a life of their own. In the early days, our US-China link looked like a tactical field telephone, with Dr. Kissinger cranking at one end, and asking if it would be ok for The Philadelphia Orchestra to visit, and Zhou En-lai answering at the other to say yes. Now our links resemble a huge fiber optic cable with millions of messages going in both directions, most of which the governments don’t even see.

Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe leads musicians from The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Shanghai Philharmonic in a side-by-side Chinese New Year’s Concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, where they performed the world premiere of the revised version of Peng Peng Gong’s Symphony No. 10. Photo by Jessica Griffin

The Chinese have done an impressive job with the hardware for symphonic music: concert halls, newly built conservatories, and the like. Western orchestras can help with the software, particularly ensemble training and orchestra management, in addition to attracting audiences to fill the halls.

This ever widening two-way street, taking inspiration from the past, is providing the blueprint for the future. The latest trend now is for Chinese orchestras to tour the US and introduce Chinese music, instruments, and orchestration to American audiences.

The Philadelphia Orchestra will embark on its 12th tour of China, May 16-28, 2019. Follow the adventures on social media and at www.philorch.org/blog.