Does it really matter to anyone outside of classical music that members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra played so beautifully side by side Tuesday night in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall?
And, is it possible that having the Philadelphia Orchestra go to China for the 12th time, as it announced Tuesday it would do in May, will do anything to alleviate tensions between China and the United States?
The vague promise of cultural diplomacy was back in the air as the Philadelphians hosted their Shanghai counterparts to form a hybrid, 100-plus-member ensemble composed of musicians from each orchestra.
But what exactly is that promise?
“At a time when there are some tensions, there is also room for some cooperation,” Walter Douglas, deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy for the U.S. State Deptartment Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said at a reception before the concert. Douglas said he hoped this sense of cooperation would extend to other fields.
The reception at the Kimmel Center, which attracted an impressive corps of Chinese media, was a chance for the orchestra to reveal details of its next China tour.
Billed as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, the tour begins with three concerts in Beijing (May 17, 18, and 20), and then moves on to Tianjin (May 22), Hangzhou (May 24), and Nanjing (May 25), before culminating with what is billed as a special anniversary concert in Shanghai (May 26).
Even amid current tensions over trade and other issues, the trip has no official government function, said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky in an interview earlier in the day. However, he added: “It is our fervent hope that only good things can come from the presence of the Philadelphia Orchestra in concert halls and conservatories and schools during our trip, where we deeply connect with people,” he said, “and hope that these acts build bridges.”
Chinese officials are expected at two of the concerts, although exactly which ones was not known, he said.
Still, outside of any official diplomatic function, the tour has ambitions on other levels. Sponsors like the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Temple University, and others will use the orchestra as a calling card there.
The Philadelphia Orchestra says it has visited China more times than any other American orchestra, and its leadership aims to attract new philanthropic support in China, where classical music is popular. In December, Beethoven in Beijing, a film by the Philadelphia company History Making Productions that recounts the orchestra’s 1973 China trip, was runner-up in the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival’s pitch contest.
“I am very hopeful that the relationship that we have been building in China over many years will provide some support for the orchestra, not only on tour but also at home,” said Tarnopolsky. “We are also hopeful that we can recruit one or two to our board of directors from China, so that is part of our longer-term strategy.”
Repertoire is to include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (the“Pastoral”), a reprise from the 1973 visit, as well as the world premiere of a Tan Dun vocal concerto titled The Deer of Nine Colors. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct all seven concerts.
The orchestra and Nézet-Séguin will also be offered up as a kind of prize in a new competition founded by the China Conservatory of Music, with the Philadelphians accompanying each of the three finalists (all pianists) in the last round of the competition, the May 20 concert. First prize includes $150,000 and an award of professional representation.
In addition to its performances in China, the orchestra will engage in education and outreach activities much like the side-by-side performance it hosted Tuesday night with the Shanghai orchestra, which is an arm of the vast media conglomerate Shanghai Media Group.
The free Chinese New Year concert crossed international borders: Philadelphia players sat in principal chairs for the first half — led by Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Zhang Liang — of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien, and the cheerful Spring Festival Overture by the Huanzhi Li.
Shanghai players took principal chairs for the world premiere of the revised version of the Symphony No. 10 by New York composer Peng-Peng Gong, with the hybrid orchestra led by Philadelphia Orchestra assistant conductor Kensho Watanabe.
The symphony, subtitled “Peking Fantasy,” is in a sweet, direct musical language — often sentimental in a pleasant way, other times in a long-winded way. An offstage trumpet solo by David Bilger made for a gorgeous, floating presence. It’s a work of highly original sounds presented in a series of vivid episodes.
Particularly striking in the Tchaikovsky were moments of Philadelphia and Shanghai instrumentalists playing solo passages together: oboists Jonathan Blumenfeld and Cheng Yue, and horn players Jeffrey Lang and Ma Chuchen.
After the Gong premiere, the composer brought up on stage Peking Opera master Shang Changrong, whose arias in part were inspiration for the piece. The opera artist took the microphone and with great enthusiasm told the audience in Chinese (as translated by Gong) that music reminds us how much we love each other, and that music is ever without boundaries or borders.
May the people of China and the U.S. treat each other as brothers and friends forever, he said.
Whether this concert and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s cumulative presence in China can fulfill the ambition implied in the phrase cultural diplomacy is an open question, but classical music these days is clearly placing itself in proximity to power and influence well outside its normal sphere.
A string quartet from the Sphinx Organization recently played Dvořák in Davos at the meeting of the World Economic Forum. When Sen. Lindsey Graham met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara a few weeks ago, Erdogan invited him along to a concert by pianist Fazil Say, which Graham described as one of the best evenings of his life, the New York Times reported.