Among the documents and memorabilia from The Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic trip as the first American orchestra to visit the People’s Republic of China is a brief piece of correspondence on official White House letterhead. Dated October 1, 1973, and signed by President Richard Nixon, the letter praises the Orchestra for its “magnificent job” and personally thanks Eugene Ormandy for having “demonstrated an admirable spirit of flexibility in adjusting your performances to Chinese desires.”
You know there’s a backstory, and it goes something like this: Ormandy was forced into being “flexible” when Chairman Mao’s wife insisted that he change the program—from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the Sixth.
Violinist Herb Light, one of just a handful of musicians who made that trip over 40 years ago and still plays with the Orchestra, laughs at the memory. It was hearsay, of course, but word was that the legendary music director was livid. Who was Madame Mao to tell him what to program? “Ormandy was quite furious. He was ready to jump ship!” Light remembers hearing. “They calmed him down … U.S.-China relations were hinging on this!”
A scramble for music ensued. Hardly anyone was listening to Western music in China at the time, never mind finding a score. The hand-copied sheets that were eventually procured, Light recalls, were full of clunkers. “Those mistakes were just funny,” he says. “They were glaring. We were laughing as we were rehearsing it for the first time. The Orchestra knows that piece—or knew that piece—very well, like we did all Beethoven symphonies, and it was really not a big deal except … when every three or four notes there’s a mistake, it’s sort of a laugher.”
It was a different world. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were still new. (They wouldn’t be formally established until 1979. The U.S. and China commemorate 35 years of diplomatic relations this year.) Nixon himself had visited China just the previous year. “It was unknown territory,” says Light, who remembers landing in Beijing (then Peking) in what seemed “like a little country airport.”
He also has a memory of the entire Orchestra, jet-lagged from the long flight, being herded into a theater for a showing of The White-Haired Girl, a popular—and propaganda-filled—production of the Communist era. “The time change is crazy so three o’clock in the afternoon was three o’clock at night,” says Light. “I don’t remember much about it except I have a vivid memory of ballet dancers. And the title.”
Unbeknownst to Light, or anybody else in the sleepy Philadelphia contingent in the audience, there was a cellist playing in that show named Xiao Fang Lu. Her daughter—too young to attend the performance—is Hai-Ye Ni, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal cello. “I was one-year-old, living in Shanghai,” Ni says.
One of three current members of the Orchestra born in mainland China, Ni didn’t know about the historic visit until after she joined the ensemble in the fall of 2006. “Back then, there wasn’t that much cultural exchange,” she says. “It was a small population of people who studied classical music—Western music.” Her mother was one of them. “She studied Western music on the cello but during the Cultural Revolution, which was 1966 through ’76 … she played mostly Chinese music arranged for cello. That was what everybody was playing then.”
That Ni was even able to have a cello of her own is remarkable. “To buy a small cello was very difficult,” says Ni, who says her parents had to enlist the friend of a friend to make one for her. “I think he probably made furniture or something, and he made a cello for me. They gave him a drawing and then he just made a cello. … It was very rare. A rare opportunity to study classical music.” She had trouble getting sheet music, too. As a student she relied on photocopies from the library, or her mother, who hand copied music, including all the Bach cello suites.
Discovering the ties that bind—the stories that connect us—is what cultural exchange is all about. When people of different backgrounds begin talking to each other, understanding is fostered. Music is made. Little girls with limited exposure to Western music grow up to be principals with a great American orchestra.
“The Philadelphia Orchestra has always been an ambassador to the world for the Commonwealth and for our great city,” says Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore, “so it’s essential for us to keep that part of our legacy alive.”
She adds, “It’s important to me that this is built on something good and generated from conversations between people of two countries as early as 1940” when Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski organized a relief concert for war-battered hospitals in China. The Orchestra, says Vulgamore, “owns this historic relationship” with China.
The Philadelphians returned to China 20 years after that initial visit in 1973, then again in 1996 and 2001 (with Wolfgang Sawallisch for all three visits and Chinese pianist Lang Lang in 2001); in 2008 with Christoph Eschenbach; and, with Charles Dutoit, in 2010 for the World Expo in Shanghai. It was at the Expo, when Vulgamore was still new on the job, that she had a serendipitous meeting with Ambassador Nicholas Platt, a diplomat instrumental in both the president’s and the Orchestra’s seminal visits to China.
“It was like meeting a great part of your past,” Vulgamore says, likening the encounter to having a chance meeting with Stokowski. “He just showed up to the performance and came backstage because a couple of musicians recognized him. It was wonderful,” she says. “Meeting Ambassador Platt reminded me of the important history that this Orchestra and that country had and so I told him we should do something together.”
They did. The next year, with support from the U.S. State Department’s “People-to-People” Exchange and China’s Ministry of Culture, Vulgamore and Chen Ping, president of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, signed a memo of understanding. A planned five-year residency began with a pilot program in 2012 that included concerts, master classes, side-by-side rehearsals, chamber concerts in art galleries, visits to schools and hospitals, and other community outreach events in both cities and the provinces. The visit was so successful, the Orchestra and the NCPA committed to a long-term partnership. In 2013 the Orchestra returned for year two of its residency—just in time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that triumphant, historic first visit.
“In 1973 our sound was put through what was then the Communist broadcast system. Madame Mao broadcast the Orchestra throughout the country … including into the rice paddies. So it is very important that our concerts today offer the memory everyone has of the great Philadelphia Sound,” says Vulgamore. “It is a powerful truth that music is our common language, shared person to person, and country to country, and it specifically brings our peoples together—in simple, powerful, and lasting ways.”