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Philadelphia Orchestra,
February 2008

The Philadelphia Orchestra: Learning Chinese

By Daniel Webster
01 Feb 2008

Revisiting The Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour to China.


Philadelphia Orchestra auditions don't include discussions of diplomatic initiatives, yet it was in diplomacy that the Orchestra may have made its greatest single 20th-century contribution to cultural history. Just 35 years ago this September, the Orchestra entered the world scene as a bargaining chip in the opening of mainland China to the West.

It was a large chip, but disguised as a planeload of musicians hoping to restart what had been a busy musical scene before World War II. This was the first American orchestra to play in China since the Maoist revolution and bloodbaths (the London and Vienna philharmonics had preceded it by a few months). The tour had its roots in Eugene Ormandy's 1971 letter to President Nixon followed by the secret visit to China by Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Ormandy's proposal to send the Orchestra seemed a cautious next step. Philadelphia was the natural choice for Nixon, who had been honored at the Orchestra's Anniversary Concert a year before. Ormandy was acceptable, too, because 30 years before he had conducted a China Relief concert in Australia. The quiet negotiations that preceded the tour must have been extraordinary. Talks were intricate. There was no such thing as having Orchestra Manager Boris Sokoloff sit down with a Chinese impresario, give him dates and a list of players, repertoire, and housing and travel needs. Communication was through shadowy diplomatic ties.

How do you move 104 musicians, instruments, stage equipment, and trunks in a nation that moved on bicycles and horse carts? Was there a place to land a 707 jet? Where could the Chinese house Westerners who wanted beds and who ate queer things like eggs and toast--and coffee--in the morning?

It all happened because Nixon was pushing here, and Mao's wife, the commanding former actress Jiang Qing, was pulling from Beijing. Of course, Jiang Qing had to approve the repertoire and not all composers fit the revolutionary Chinese template. Ormandy proposed many programs, and was finally allowed to play Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3, and the Yellow River Concerto, a work composed in the best Communist way--by an anonymous committee.

Good will was everywhere, even after the musicians found that they had to have cholera shots and could not take spouses with them. The Chinese limited the tour party to players and stage crew, Mr. Sokoloff, logistical magician Joseph Santarlasci, Mr. and Mrs. Ormandy, Orchestra Chairman C. Wanton Balis and his wife, publicist Louis Hood, and five members of the press: New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, Philadelphia Bulletin columnist Sandy Grady, Kati Marton and her cameraman for Channel 10, and myself. That number comfortably filled the PanAm 707 examined and approved for the trip.

Eugene Ormandy leads the Central Philharmonic Society of China in a rehearsal.
photo by The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives
The gravity of the tour was slow to gather for the players. After a sendoff from the old international hangar in Philadelphia, the Orchestra spent a night in Honolulu. There trumpeter Gil Johnson lost his passport and required desperate cables to allow him to continue on the plane. The next flight was from Honolulu to Tokyo, then, after a pause, to Shanghai. The tour was suddenly magnified. No travel existed between Tokyo and China--or between much of anywhere and China as far as that went. No one had a hint of what awaited them in China. Fay Chen (Chinese for Philadelphia) was coming. The plane came in low over tilled fields and rolled to a small terminal. An elaborate ceremony for the Ormandys with flowers, overstuffed chairs, and tea gave players a chance to stretch before heading to a night landing in Beijing.

Buses, horns blaring, parted the waves of bicyclists that day and night owned the road into Beijing. The buses passed the Great Hall where, it had been rumored, the Communist Party had just held its 10th Congress. The players were carefully placed in rooms, their names in English and Chinese by the doors, in a hotel with hallways full of nervous waiting staff whose duties consisted of refilling thermoses of tea in the rooms--day and night. The Orchestra was seeing the dawn of a new age in China, but it was seeing the sunset of a great tradition, too. The players' days were filled with visits to the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City, in which Mao lay dying. Virtuoso musicians playing erhu, pipa, sheng, and other folk instruments performed at every turn.

Paradoxically, the Communists were showing treasures from civilizations they despised. But only so much forced feeding, even of epochal treasures, can be maintained. Early risers watched the streets where solemn Chinese in Maoist pajamas practiced Tai-chi. After a day or so, trumpeter Don McComas, trombonist Glenn Dodson, and others showed off their secret weapon--frisbees. They began tossing them and crowds gathered. The Chinese joined and frisbees flew across language and cultural barriers.

For the musicians to be on the streets challenged Chinese credulity: Westerners had not walked the streets for 25 years. Riders stopped their bikes and walkers froze at the sight of such exotic beings. On the second morning, Concertmaster Norman Carol and some other violinists joined the snaking line of Chinese buying flat pancakes fried on charcoal grills in the streets. The Chinese were shaken. Should they give their place in line to these foreigners? Should they abandon breakfast and just gawk? Both seemed practical choices. The violinists were pushed forward as the line broke apart. Breakfast was a spectator sport.

Oh, and the music? There was some. Ormandy held a rehearsal and met the local conductor Li Teh-lun and Yin Cheng-Chung, the pianist for Yellow River. Then, the Orchestra was invited to hear the Central Philharmonic in its cracked concrete building with rattley windows that stood north of the scar marking the dismantled medieval wall that once surrounded Beijing. The orchestra was pitiful. Members held chipped and glued instruments and they played music that was hand copied and pasted together from decades before. Li did his best, but the Beethoven they rehearsed was scarcely recognizable. These musicians had been mining coal and doing field work since 1966, and a few months prior they were suddenly brought back to reintroduce Western music. Li bowed and asked Ormandy to conduct. Ormandy took the baton, smiled at the nervous players, raised the baton--and made an orchestra. The tattered group remembered who they were: They dug their bows into the strings, the bassoons found intonation, and these "cultural workers" were musicians again. The Philadelphians presented some instruments brought for the occasion and everybody shook hands, traded ideas about instruments, even hugged and saw tears in Chinese eyes. From that meeting came about long-lasting exchanges. Violist Leonard Mogill sent scores to colleagues for years after the tour. Percussionist Alan Abel tried the folk instruments and gave the Chinese seminars in what the Americans played.

The Orchestra played concerts in Beijing. Harris and Debussy were mysteries; Beethoven and the Yellow River Concerto were applauded. Who were the listeners? Chiang Ching, as Mao's voice, had closed the universities and conservatories that year. Were these all party functionaries?

In outdated Western clothes, Jiang Qing was everywhere, smiling, mingling with players, being photographed in the midst of American artists. The banquets that filled the evenings introduced musicians to sea cucumbers, high-octane plum liqueur, and the most brilliant cooking and presentation anyone could recall.

So the tour spun on. The flight to Shanghai in a worn Russian Ilyushin showed China a generation ahead of its time. The seats were cramped and only chewing gum was served on the flight. (American airlines were to copy that format 30 years later.)

The players saw in Shanghai the remnants of a city once divvied up among European governments. From the highest building in the Bund--12 stories--players could see sorghum fields stretching to the south of the Whangpo River, ornate sailing ships, and Communist bloc tankers. Glass towers fill that panorama now. The Orchestra was treated to a cruise on the river where they heard a shipboard band of six playing traditional instruments in an ancient tune with improvised variations that grew to span almost the entire trip. Here was Old China at its fading best.

The hosts tried to force visits to industrial displays and Party monuments, but the Philadelphians went shopping--to the astonishment of the natives. Yet in those displays of powdered metal technology lay the first signs of the new China's potential might. We skipped it. In Department Store No. 10 players bought bamboo flutes fitted with fish-skin membranes, and some trinkets. There were supervised visits to the approved Friendship Stores where scrolls and other reminders of old China were on sale. Local buses stopped at the sight of the Philadelphians. Violinist Robert De Pasquale, walking the streets, heard a violin. He dashed into the building, up the stairs and found a student practicing. He gave the astonished boy an hour's lesson.

Maoist China was celibate and puritanical. No boys and girls walked together, no couples were apparent. Everybody was at work for the Party. When the tour halted abruptly in Fairbanks (no new crew was available to fly), hornist Mason Jones and I walked through snow to see the First Dance Quartet at the high school. They opened with José Limon's super-sensuous Moor's Pavanne, set to a Purcell score, a retelling of Othello in passionate intertwining intensity. At the end, Jones said "That's what I missed in China." "What was that, Mason," I teased him. "Counterpoint," said Mason.

What did it all mean? A new China was scarcely visible over the horizon, but with Mao dying, Jiang Qing and others knew the Old China was moribund. China needed non-political witnesses to see a ceremonial rebirth and reopening. The Orchestra fit that requirement.

For the Americans, the Orchestra represented our culture at its best. We could report that our two musics spoke of friendship, and that China had done its utmost to welcome Westerners. We saw the last of a great civilization, and came home to marvel at it. But the Orchestra had pried open a door shut for 25 years. Players sent mail, scores, and magazines to their colleagues in Beijing. Bassist Carl Torello, his body abbraided by decades at the bass, came home a paraclete for acupuncture. Cellist Harry Gorodetzer had easily made friends everywhere and came home with lots of addresses for letters. The Chinese had sent with them elaborate gongs and percussion instruments. We had left recordings, scores, even some instruments. These were increments in what has become a vast exchange of artists and scholars, business leaders, and students.

Mason Jones's Delphic answer was apt. There was no counterpoint in Chinese music; there was no counterpoint in Chinese life, but the Orchestra, through its music and its presence, had proposed a dangerous alternative. After the Orchestra left, Jiang Qing acted quickly to protect her billion or so non-voting constituents. She banned Schubert from Chinese concert halls.


Daniel Webster is a former music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer.





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