Hidden from small

The Philadelphia Orchestra: Global Cultural Ambassadors at Home in the World

April 05, 2017

We’ve all heard the expression “Think globally, act locally.” But for The Philadelphia Orchestra in the 21st century, a better version might be “Think AND Act Globally AND Locally.”

The local part is already well known. There are of course the spellbinding concerts that have been the crown jewels of Philadelphia’s cultural scene for over a century, winning the Orchestra awards and respect, and delighting audiences for generation after generation. More recently, the HEAR initiative (Health, Education, Access, and Research) has broadened and burnished the Orchestra’s local commitment beyond Verizon Hall and the Academy of Music, promoting wellness and music education, easing access to the Orchestra, and maximizing its impact through research, all across the Delaware Valley.

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra perform at Beijing’s Hall of the Nationalities during the historic 1973 Tour of China. Photo: Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

But the Orchestra has a truly significant international presence as well, with roots going back over 80 years. In 1936 it first crossed the northern border into Canada, on the ensemble’s first transcontinental tour. In 1949 the ensemble became the first American orchestra to cross the Atlantic following World War II. Six years later the Orchestra performed in continental Europe, followed by visits to Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Eastern Bloc (1958) and Central and South America (1966). The Orchestra made its first Asian tour in 1967.

So the Fabulous Philadelphians were firmly established on the world stage, as incomparable performers. But in 1973, history came calling: President Nixon asked the Orchestra to become a global cultural ambassador, by performing in China. It was a heady time in international diplomacy. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had only just made their historic opening to China, thawing a relationship that had been frozen in animosity since the communists came to power in 1949. Now, here was the President of the United States in effect asking The Philadelphia Orchestra to help seal the deal, by becoming the first American orchestra to perform in China.

Despite some diplomatic confusion and logistical difficulties, the tour was a success, pleasing the Chinese audiences and earning the Orchestra kudos at home. And it also helped create a bridge for cultural, educational, and diplomatic exchanges between the two countries. For the Orchestra, it was the beginning of a long and, to this day, powerful relationship with China and its people.

But as impressive as it is, this list of global accomplishments “does not tell the whole story,” according to Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore. “Why are we the orchestra that has made cultural exchange a pillar of its existence?”

A string quartet of Orchestra musicians performs a pop-up concert at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven during the 2012 China Residency. Photo: Chris Lee

The answer to that question begins in 2012. The Orchestra was undergoing re-organization. It had lost some state funding that had helped underwrite international tours (at the time, the bedrock of the Orchestra’s international reputation.) In looking for ways to conduct business differently, Vulgamore and her team began seeking out fresh approaches to organizing international tours.

Working with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they found another revenue stream to help underwrite the tours. And with the 1973 China triumph still very much top of mind, they worked to see if they could build on that relationship, and make it even bigger. The result was a China visit in 2012 that dramatically increased the ties between the Orchestra and the country, and helped create a template for touring all over the globe. Now, in addition to traditional concerts, there were “pop-up” performances by Orchestra ensembles at historic locations around Beijing, the capital; nine community engagement activities; three master classes; two free open rehearsals; a chamber orchestra concert; and several U.S.-China diplomatic forums. These events occurred not only in Beijing, but also in nearby Tianjin (Philadelphia’s “sister city” in China), Guangzhou, and Shanghai.

That 2012 China tour now informs the Orchestra’s activities wherever it goes, with “in-residence” activities supplementing the formal performances in the world’s leading concert halls. As Vulgamore says, “We’ve made ‘play and stay’ into an art form. We partner with our local presenters, diplomats, and government officials to bring the breadth of our work into communities far beyond the concert halls.”

The Orchestra also travels now with crucial partners: official delegations from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia. At numerous events surrounding a tour, those officials can explain why the city and state should be on any list for potential expansion overseas. That’s already led to international business investment in the Lancaster area and the Lehigh Valley.

Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj shakes hands with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin while Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore looks on. President Elbegdorj visited Philadelphia last September at the invitation of the Orchestra, the first time an elected leader of a foreign country has visited a U.S. city at the invitation of an arts organization. A description of the visit was read into the Congressional Record, the first time an orchestra has been recognized on the floor of the Senate. The Philadelphia Orchestra becomes the first Western orchestra ever to perform in Mongolia in June. Photo: Jessica Griffin

The next stop for our roving cultural diplomats could be one of the most exciting yet. This June, as part of its 2017 China Residency and Tour of Asia, the Orchestra will visit Mongolia, the first western orchestra to do so. The trip is in celebration of 30 years of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mongolia, and 25 years of democracy there.

“Mongolia may be a place that people know little about and don’t contemplate visiting,” says Executive Vice President for Orchestra Advancement Ryan Fleur. “But surrounded as it is by Russia and China, it is geopolitically important. So we’re using our music to demonstrate that importance. We’ll be embracing Mongolian culture, as well as bringing ensembles into areas that I can guarantee have never seen violins and violas. It should be an incredibly powerful experience!”

Rest assured, cultural diplomacy doesn’t leave all its benefits at the water’s edge. The Orchestra is now bringing some of its international artistic partners back to Philadelphia. “We started that in 2014 when our primary partner in Beijing, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), wanted its orchestra to go on tour,” says Fleur, “and we helped them make connections in New York City and Washington. We presented them at the Kimmel Center. Later this fall, we are presenting that orchestra again, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NCPA.”

During The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2016 China Residency, musicians of the Orchestra participated in a side-by-side rehearsal with musicians from the Shanghai Philharmonic. Here, Co-Principal Bassoon Mark Gigliotti answers questions about his reed. The Chinese musicians were fascinated to learn it was handmade. Photo: Jan Regan

The Philadelphians have also begun mentoring the musicians of the Shanghai Philharmonic, as part of a five-year partnership with the Shanghai Media Group. SMG, as they are known throughout China, is the second largest media conglomerate in the country, comparable in its reach and diversity to Philadelphia’s own Comcast. Conductor-in-Residence Cristian Măcelaru has already led some intensive mentoring there; a group of Orchestra musicians will follow suit before the formal tour; later this summer, 8-10 Shanghai players will come to the States, to be coached, and potentially appear onstage for a Philadelphia Orchestra performance.

But can an orchestra based in Philadelphia really be an international mover and shaker? Isn’t it overshadowed by New York and Washington? Allison Vulgamore laughs at the thought. “When Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry have both recognized our cultural diplomacy work; when we can get the President of Mongolia to come down from the United Nations to visit with us here; when at our annual concert in Washington, D.C., our celebration of 21st century global diplomacy included five ambassadors from countries with which we have, and are, building relationships; I think it’s pretty obvious we’re perfectly situated for this role!”

Concertmaster David Kim and Principal Harp Elizabeth Hainen perform for guests, including Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, at the Ambassador’s Residence in Tokyo during the Orchestra’s 2016 Tour of Asia. Photo: Jan Regan

It’s hard to mention the word “global” without thinking of “globalization,” which has become a dirty word for some people. Fleur isn’t concerned. “In the history of the world, popular opinion will shift from time to time. But we’re playing the long game. We believe cultural diplomacy will benefit Philadelphia in the long run. It will benefit the markets where we perform, it will be uniquely fulfilling to our artists, and it makes The Philadelphia Orchestra a much more relevant and richer institution.”

Vulgamore agrees: “It seems only fitting that the Orchestra from the cradle of American independence should be the orchestra so often called upon to represent the United States abroad!”

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.