It was the “usual accumulation of kith and kin” that gathered at Philadelphia International Airport to see the Philadelphia Orchestra off on tour on Sept. 10, 1973, John C. Krell wrote in his diary.
But nothing else would be usual about that tour. Krell and his colleagues were about to become the first American orchestra to visit the People’s Republic of China. (The London Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic had visited earlier that year.)
Krell, a Curtis Institute graduate who was the orchestra’s piccolo player for nearly three decades, kept a daily journal along the way: encounters with Chinese leaders like Madame Mao and with audiences whose reactions were hard to decipher; reports on the variable moods of “the boss,” music director Eugene Ormandy; and impressions of a country that was a mystery to most Americans.
The orchestra’s relationship with China has endured. The ensemble’s next trip, from May 16 to 28, will be its 12th, with activities and concerts led by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin planned in five cities.
Krell died in 1999 and left his papers to his niece Mary Planten-Krell, who only recently discovered his account of the 1973 tour among other writings sitting in a file. “Although I had read other notes and diaries of his, I did not know about this China journal,” said Planten-Krell. “I was instantly captivated with it on first reading.”
We were, too. Excerpts are published here for what she believes is the first time.
All orderly on plane till second drink; then sardine congestion in the aisles. Lunch and professional patience of crew restore order, but the noise of the plane and the raised voices create a limbo of unreality as ship races the sun through a tunnel in the sky. Anesthesia of food, wine, imposed luxury of Pan Am 707 and movies provide another soporific period till landing in Frisco, where I refresh with a beer with our Irish stagehands.
[In Beijing, Krell and other orchestra members walk around the city on a free morning.]
We were subjected to much staring — not exactly hostile but not friendly either and the people definitely retreated at the sight of the camera and objected to being photographed.
The big square emerges, impressive with its space, red banner slogans and pictures of Mao, Lenin and Stalin. We pause in a music store which displays crude but modern bassoons and flutes. [Principal flutist] Murray [Panitz] bought a set of bamboo flutes (one for each key) for $12 while a Chinese man testing small gongs set up a terrific clamor and attracted a large curious crowd.
[We learned that] the Peking Philharmonic plays Western music only in rehearsal for training, and spend a month a year working in the country — because of their fine fibers and delicate hands, they are given jobs like pruning trees, etc.
Boss in a complete dither. Young, plump soloist plays Yellow River Concerto (written by a committee) in a very rhapsodic style which upsets the boss, who is divided between impressing the audience of Chinese orchestra musicians and trying to make a semblance of order out of an otherwise chaotic situation. His temper surfaces but is contained, and for the first time he admits of being in a circumstance where he has no control — that even the programs are not set yet.
Pastoral Symphony was rehearsed (at Madame Mao’s request) from Chinese orchestra parts and other repertoire just touched. Dinner at five, concert at 7:30 — sold out we understand with cheap tickets (.40) distributed to different groups by the Chinese. Audience rather impassive to our Mozart, Harris and Brahms and the response polite but restrained. Actually it was impossible to discern their real reaction. Even the Stars & Stripes and the Chinese Worker’s March failed to spark much enthusiasm. Snacks and beer at the hotel and to bed with a pill.
Off to the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) at 9. Many Chinese tourists were there and the clatter of camera shutters was order of the day with the Polaroid shots making instant success when presented to the peasants, for there is no private color film available in China.
[Central Philharmonic performs] the 1st movement of Beethoven V in a respectable performance but without conviction; the Boss is invited to conduct the 2nd mvt. which he does with obvious alacrity and success.
[The Chinese and American musicians exchange gifts: the Philadelphians have brought American scores and recordings, plus musical instruments, while the Chinese give an antique lute, two stringed fiddles, a sheng, bamboo flutes, gong, drum, and sono.]
We all left, feeling slightly embarrassed by the paucity of our gifts, but realizing that this encounter was perhaps the most significant part of the entire trip. The modesty, humility and earnestness of the Chinese musicians is heartwarming and refreshing.
Rest in afternoon. Evening concert is important because big shots to attend. Not surprising then that Madame Mao appears in a Western dress with Ambassador Bruce and her retinue. She did not like the Pines of Rome and talked through much of it, complaining that it didn’t sound to her what it was supposed to represent. Much applause and the Yellow River piano soloist plays elegant variations on ‘Home on the Range’ as a concession to Nixon’s tastes.
Our buses leave after concert but at arrival at hotel are turned back to the hall at the request of Madame Mao. She (very imperious and very much a power — vice-chairman of culture in the politbureau) wished to have pictures taken with us, so bleachers were hastily assembled and Madame Mao personally greets each member as we leave and gives each a packet of fragrant cassia seeds she picked from her garden.
We pass miles of new apartments (box-like) being constructed on way to airport. General Philharmonic is again on hand to say goodbye as we leave on a Russian plane for Shanghai. At this point I begin to suspect that the real reason for the Chinese accepting the large orchestra tour was, as Mr. Yang put it, “to sow the seeds of friendship” and that our performances of Western music was strictly incidental. Certainly we are learning more from them than they from us. Must say that the tranquility of the people is contagious — no rushing, no anxiety, complete honesty and no aggression.
The sheer density of the people here is rather depressing, but then probably Shanghai is to Peking what NY must be to Harrisburg. Concert hall is small and bad acoustically, but the evening’s audience is attentive and enthusiastic.
Last day. Last chance to shop the department stores, etc. As a farewell present we are given a boat ride down the Whangpoo river [now called the Huángpu] to the mouth of the Yangtze. Suddenly musicians appear and we are treated to a serenade of water music on the Whangpoo river by four groups of folk musicians.
Pan Am is back with us and we depart promptly at 6 p.m. with a Chinese sun setting over the city, realizing belatedly that this has probably been the most meaningful of any of our many foreign tours — a glimpse into another way and philosophy of life that is obviously functioning very well for the great majority of the people. Perhaps the most persuasive factor is the quiet happiness, dignity, modesty and self-sufficiency of the people who have gone back to the agrarian essentials of life to establish a new solution for this confused world. Not for us, of course, but disquieting nonetheless.