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Can Beethoven temper the political tensions between U.S. and China? | Trudy Rubin

The PBS documentary "Beethoven in Beijing," premiering Friday, portrays the historic Philadelphia Orchestra visit to Beijing, and music's role in China's fraught relationship with the U.S.

Conductor Eugene Ormandy (first row, center) stands beside Madame Mao during a historic visit by Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing in 1973, the first appearance by any U.S. orchestra in communist China.
Conductor Eugene Ormandy (first row, center) stands beside Madame Mao during a historic visit by Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing in 1973, the first appearance by any U.S. orchestra in communist China.Read moreCourtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra

If you want to understand why we’re not embarked on a “new Cold War” with Beijing, I suggest you watch a PBS documentary this week called Beethoven in Beijing about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unique relationship with China.

I suggest this not because of a vain hope that music can offset political strife. We are indeed headed into rocky, and risky, disputes with Beijing over Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and global leadership in cutting-edge technologies.

But a film about China’s passion for the German master — and for Philadelphia’s orchestral treasure — is a reminder that the U.S.-China relationship is far more complex than your father’s Cold War with Moscow. The U.S. and Soviet Union operated in two separate orbits. Americans had virtually no trade with the Soviets and very little human contact with Soviet Russians, except for arms control talks.

The relationship between America and China, on the other hand, is broad and deep with multiple layers, from massive trade links to decades of people-to-people exchanges, including many thousands of academics and scientists, sports teams, tourists, and millions of students, along with many, many cultural organizations.

» READ MORE: Despite U.S.-Beijing tensions, Philadelphia Orchestra expands musical ties in China | Trudy Rubin

So the idea that the world’s two most powerful countries can simply “decouple” as their strategic competition grows fiercer — a concept promoted by China hawks — doesn’t match reality. In the case of classical music, as Beethoven in Beijing illustrates, the ties that bind our two countries are historically driven and deeply emotional. They will be tested, but hopefully, they will survive.

The documentary revolves around the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 visit to China, the first by a U.S. orchestra. It followed President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to Beijing that established diplomatic ties with the country. Classical music had been banned as “decadent” during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but the orchestra’s visit, with Eugene Ormandy conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, became a milestone in U.S.-Chinese relations.

“I was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, when anything foreign was forbidden,” recalls Jindong Cai, a co-producer of the film and now director of the U.S.-China Music Institute at Bard College. He had heard Beethoven recordings secretly on a gramophone hidden at a friend’s house, but now the Ormandy performance was blaring on loudspeakers. Cai was inspired to study music at the New England Conservatory, and now promotes exchanges and collaborations between Chinese and U.S. musicians.

Today, the Philadelphia Orchestra is still an icon in China, having made many concert tours of the country and worked with Chinese students, universities, and the Shanghai Philharmonic. It also works with emerging Chinese orchestras that want advice on how to market their concerts in cities that are building new concert halls across the country. Other U.S. orchestras also tour China regularly and have built relationships with Chinese musical institutions.

“Beethoven and classical music is still so popular,” says Cai, with huge conservatories springing up that train 5,000 or 10,000 musicians. “Now middle-class parents want their kids to play an instrument,” Cai told me. ”Music is like sports to Chinese parents, who start their kids at 3 or 4 on piano or violin.” (Indeed, China now manufactures up to 70% of the world’s pianos.)

What is equally important is the extent of the human relationships that have been built around music. “If you go to any U.S. music conservatory, you can see Chinese students and professors. Hundreds of thousands have gone back to China, and they are working together on both sides,” says Cai.

Those personal bonds are visible in the film, where Chinese musicians who met the Philadelphia Orchestra players in 1973 embrace their counterparts in an emotional reunion. They overflow when an all-Chinese choir sings the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Shanghai.

Of course, one can’t help question whether — as rhetoric heats up between Washington and Beijing — even music will become politicized, as happened with basketball ties between the two countries.

» READ MORE: Beethoven in Beijing: Documentary celebrates Philadelphia Orchestra’s history-making 1973 tour of China

“Yes, there is so much tension, but there are so many interwoven connections [between the Philadelphia Orchestra and China],” says the film’s codirector, Jennifer Lin, former Beijing correspondent for The Inquirer. “You don’t just unbraid that because of the political situation.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s CEO, Matías Tarnopolsky, adds: “It is important to remember that the musical bonds described in this film were forged with the people of China in 1973. We are now keepers of an almost 50-year tradition — year upon year, we keep our dialogue going through music, which has the power to express thoughts and ideas that words alone cannot.”

In a sense, the musical relationships shown in this documentary are a litmus test, as to whether the deep ties between musicians and orchestras are so strong that even the geopolitical competition of two 21st-century giants cannot break them. And whether, even if cultural relationships can’t overcome political strife, they can ameliorate it.

In the meantime, this portrait of Americans and Chinese making music together is a pleasure to watch.

“Great Performances” explores the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour and China’s contribution to classical music in “Beethoven in Beijing,” Friday, April 16, on PBS or