Philadelphia Orchestra celebrates 50 years of friendship
The Philadelphia Orchestra concluded their 13th visit to China in Shanghai on Sunday, which was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its first visit in 1973.
Fifty years ago, at the suggestion of then-US president Richard Nixon, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first American orchestra to visit the People's Republic of China.
With Shanghai the last stop for this year's journey, the orchestra's 14 members had also performed in Beijing, Tianjin and Suzhou since November 7.
In Shanghai, they had master classes, panel discussion and chamber performances at ShanghaiTech University, the China Welfare Institute Children's Palace and Shanghai Library's Pudong branch on Friday and Saturday.
Ryan Fleur, executive director of Philadelphia Orchestra, said the visit was quite remarkable as both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, on the eve of their meeting together in San Francisco, sent the orchestra letters of congratulations.
"Both expressed we're nearly identical in this idea that exchange and exchanging culture is the equivalent of reaching hands across the sea to get together," he said.
Fleur personally has been on seven of the 13 visits with the orchestra. He said the visit to Children's Palace is deeply meaningful for the troupe as the orchestra had been there during its first China tour in 1973.
"In 1973, when we were in Shanghai, we came to this very building and we worked with students, and we've come back a number of times over the years, most recently 10 years ago for our 40th anniversary," he said.
Children and future
The connection between the China Welfare Institute and the Philadelphia Orchestra dates back earlier than that.
In 1938, Madam Soong Ching Ling established the China Defense League (predecessor of the China Welfare Institute) in Hong Kong to raise funds all over the world for the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.
In 1940, the orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, organized a charity concert which was broadcast live across the US. The program carried a fundraising slogan saying "The equivalent of one American dollar will pay all the expenses incidental to the upkeep of a child for one month – including food, clothing, medicines and cost of personnel."
All the proceeds were sent to Soong to help hospitals and children in China.
Notably, it was Ormandy who led the orchestra to make their first visit to China, which is regarded as breaking the ice.
On July 1, 2013, the orchestra staged a concert in Shanghai to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first visit. At that concert, the Children's Palace's Little Companion Art Troupe was invited to perform with the orchestra.
On Saturday, the orchestra delegation watched children's chorus, dance, painting and accordion performance. Finally at the historical Marble Hall, the palace's Chinese music orchestra and the visiting troupe played the famous Chinese song "The Moon Represents My Heart" together after some performance exchanges.
"I'm incredibly excited and very flattered that there's such a warm reception for us," he said.
"We make music for a living and our hope is that we can convey thoughts and ideas that words alone cannot and being able to express it in a way to the youth of China not just to the people of China but to the future. It's important for us to show the people of China that we're just people too and we want to work together and make beautiful music together."
Violinist Davyd Booth has participated in all the 13 visits to China by the Philadelphia Orchestra and is one of the only two remained members of the 1973 delegation.
He is always glad to share with people his memories in the past 50 years.
Booth said the 1973 visit to China was his first trip out of the US. The way he happened to be part of the delegation was almost an accident as his contract didn't actually start at that time. But he received an invitation as somebody had suffered a heart attack.
"When I first visited China, it was nothing at all like it is now," he said. "When we first came into Beijing with the airport, it was still surrounded by fields and farmers. One of my most vivid memories is to see a farmer working with a wooden cart. It had wooden wheels and it was being pulled by a water buffalo.
"I like seeing that because I come from an area where there are a lot of farms and it almost made me feel at home."
He also recalled the tremendous changes he has observed in Shanghai over the past half century.
"In Shanghai, we saw a lot of old buildings especially down next to the Huangpu River," he said. "We came back in 1992, so was roughly 20 years later, and everything was totally different. It was very much looked like it is now, not quite as big, but it developed a lot.
"The people look much different. In the beginning in 1973, everybody looked alike. They dressed in the same coats the same clothes, the same color, even the same hats, and even everybody had the same kind of haircut, so in a way it was actually very difficult to tell sometimes who was male and who was female.
"Now it's a very chic and stylish and really beautiful country. In every city that we've been to, the modernization and the growth have been really remarkable."
Looking back over the past 50 years, Booth said he felt "lucky to have had a wonderful career with the Philadelphia Orchestra."
"Particularly, China has been one of our most important friendships," he said. "We play all over the world in many countries, but nowhere else have we developed the close relationship that we have here with China.
"And I've developed friends from even people from 50 years ago that I keep in touch with. And almost everywhere I go, I see people come up to me that tell me that they watched these concerts 50 years ago. That's an incredible connection and sense of history that I feel very privileged to have been a part of."
Booth said just a few weeks ago, when the orchestra was on tour in the US and during a concert, he saw a couple who were in audience of the 1973 concerts.
"I also feel really deeply moved by the story of famous composer Tan Dun," he said.
"He was not at the concert but he was working in a field and heard broadcast of the orchestra, and he was so moved by the sound that he heard that he wanted to devote his life to music.
"So it's really one of the greatest things to feel that what we do, playing music, making music, coming to different countries, touches people in such a strong way."
When the orchestra had a flash mob concert at the Pudong branch of Shanghai Library, among the audience was a family, a couple with three children, dressed up with cowboy hats. They held papers with words like "Welcome back" and "Thank you".
"We saw the notice of the concert from the library's WeChat account but failed to reserve a seat," said the mother who gave her name as Audrey. "Fortunately, it's in an open space in the hall and we can watch from aside.
"We've heard about the historical visit by the American orchestra and it's really nice to see them here again."
Fluer posed for photos with the family.
"Every time I come, I come to talk to people who have either been at the 1973 concerts or heard about them from their parents or their grandparents," he said. "It's an incredibly touching reaffirmation that the work that we're doing is important and we must continue to do it."
He said the full Philadelphia Orchestra will come back to China next year.
"We haven't finalized the cities yet where we'll be traveling, but we have a number of strategic partnerships primarily based in Beijing and Shanghai, and I guarantee that we'll be back in both of those places in some shape and form," he said.