BEIJING - The concert program was much the same as in 1973.

The venue was the same.

Even some of the guests were the same.

But in contrast to the restrained reception the Philadelphia Orchestra received the first time, the invitation-only audience at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities yesterday showed unbridled enthusiasm for the orchestra in a program marking the 35th anniversary of its groundbreaking first tour of China.

In 1973, Eugene Ormandy became the first conductor of an American orchestra to perform in the People's Republic of China. At that time, Western music was banned and the audience showed only polite approval for the Philadelphians.

This time around, colorful pianist Lang Lang, 25, whose musical heritage spans Beijing and Philadelphia, led a program that was full of emotion, nostalgia and solemnity. The concert started with a moment of silence for the 69,019 known victims of the May 12 earthquake and ended with the audience on its feet.

In the highlight of the concert, Lang Lang, who trained at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, brought delicacy as well as power to the

Yellow River Concerto

, a Chinese favorite written by four musicians during the Cultural Revolution and based on many familiar melodies.

The home crowd embraced it.

After minutes of applause, Lang Lang followed with a mournful encore of Chopin's

Nocturne in E major

in memory of the quake victims. He played the piece like a prayer, putting aside his usual animated style at the keyboard.

The concert is to be televised by China's CCTV and Hong Kong's Phoenix TV in an earthquake-relief effort. Orchestra members have waived their broadcast fee, with Chinese and U.S. corporations agreeing to donate $3 million as part of the drive.

Yesterday's afternoon concert was at an older Communist hall that is not one of Beijing's top concert venues but is historically significant. When the orchestra performed here in 1973, two of China's most powerful leaders attended: Premier Chou En-lai on opening night, and Mao Tse-tung's wife, Jiang Qing, on another.

All around the lobby of the theater were enlarged photos of that trip - Ormandy and his wife at the Great Wall; a rehearsal with China's Central Philharmonic; the Philadelphia musicians receiving a gift of a gong from their Chinese hosts.

Before stepping into a gala dinner at the Peninsula Hotel after yesterday's concert, music director Christoph Eschenbach called the performance "intense," saying it was "an emotional event that means so much to the orchestra."

Besides the

Yellow River Concerto

, he led the orchestra in Beethoven's

Egmont

overture and

Sixth Symphony

. The encore was Bernstein's

Candide

overture. Both

Yellow River

and Beethoven's

Sixth

were performed in 1973.

The concert was the start of the final leg of the orchestra's 20-day Asian tour, with stops next in Guangzhou and Shanghai. The orchestra played earlier in Japan and South Korea. This is the sixth time it has performed in China.

Ten members of the current orchestra remember that first time around. At the gala dinner, tables for guests were named in their honor.

Thirty-five years ago, percussionist Anthony Orlando recalled, all the orchestra members "felt like we were representing America. We felt the eyes of the world were on us." And they were.

In 1971, China invited the U.S. table tennis team to Beijing - an ever-so-slight thaw in diplomatic relations.

That was followed by President Richard M. Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 and the orchestra's visit the following year.

At the start of the anniversary concert, Li Zhaoxing, a former foreign minister who now heads a group that promotes international exchanges, told the audience that he remembers hearing how the Americans had packed with them toilet paper, a toaster and bottled water, fearing the lack of such amenities in China.

China, he noted wryly, has come a long way since then.

Nicholas and Sheila Platt, who attended both the 1973 concert and this one, said that although the music sounded the same, the audience was far more responsive today. "No one used to jump up," said Nicholas Platt, a former U.S. liaison officer in Beijing in 1973 who escorted Ormandy around China.

Platt's wife added that in 1973, the performance of the

Yellow River Concerto

felt like propaganda. "But this time, I really enjoyed it," she said, applauding as others did the ability of Lang Lang to find emotion in a piece that was an anthem of the turbulent Cultural Revolution.

Yin Chengzong, one of its four arrangers, said they wrote it back then, adapting it from an earlier piece of music, in a desperate ploy to discourage the culture warriors under Mao's wife from destroying Western musical instruments such as the piano.

Victor Kuo, who works here for IBM, remembers the 1973 performance for what he didn't hear. When he learned that Mao's wife was going to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra's performance, he knew that her appearance would be televised news.

Kuo said he sought out one of the few televisions on the campus of Beijing University, where he was a student, hoping to hear a snippet of the famous Philadelphians. The news came on, the orchestra was shown - but without sound.

"That moment, I felt a sadness that was so deep I never forgot," said Kuo.

Kuo, who went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania in the '80s, said that during his years in Philadelphia he never missed a Friday afternoon performance of the orchestra.

He said he was moved by yesterday's performance and reminded of all the change in China that it represented. "This orchestra," Kuo said, "is very special."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.