Forget the usual overseas concert tours, when the Philadelphia Orchestra arrives like some grand ocean liner with all routes planned years in advance. The orchestra's May 28-June 6 residency and tour of China, details of which were to be announced Wednesday in Beijing and Philadelphia, was hatched in a matter of months — five full orchestral concerts in four cities, master classes, chamber concerts, many other ancillary events, plus plans stretching five years into the future.
"Announcing in the fall and going in May — that's quick time," said orchestra president Allison Vulgamore. "It's an unstoppable energy."
It has also shoehorned into the orchestra's regular schedule. Concerts in San Francisco June 9 and 10 with chief conductor Charles Dutoit (who also leads the China concerts) will be played on the way home, followed by summer seasons at Vail, Saratoga, and Philadelphia's Mann Center.
But three China weeks are reserved in the orchestra's 2013 schedule; this briefer 2012 visit is consider a pilot for the five-year plan.
"The pilot terminology is important," said Craig Hamilton, the orchestra's vice president for global initiatives. "We don't have all the answers and we're learning it together. What we think might work may not work after the pilot. … It's a chance to explore."
The main base of the residency is Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (nicknamed the Egg because of its architecture) with performances in schools, pop-up performances at historic sites, and master classes. On June 3, a ceremony will formalize future visits; the Egg's president, Chen Ping, is a key partner. Numerous other events involve chamber groups drawn from the orchestra, including a concert in Macau, at one of the residency's sponsors, the Venetian, a luxury hotel. Other concerts are scheduled for Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Though orchestra administrators emphasize the primary importance of the music making — and diplomatic value (the U.S. State Department and Chinese Ministries of Culture are significant collaborators) — the quickly assembled consortium of sponsors, headed by China Merchants Bank and including Drexel University, has paid for the trip with an undisclosed surplus. The strength of the Chinese economy, the rising importance of western classical music in the post-Mao era, and the lack of hesitation despite the orchestra's Chapter 11 status suggest that China could be a major source of fund-raising, a scenario floated by The Inquirer during the orchestra's 2010 tour of China, based on the Cleveland Orchestra's successful residencies in Florida.
"I didn't think about the Cleveland model," Vulgamore said, "but [about] the orchestra's history and what the musicians do well. I think it's a very organic situation, what's happening between Philadelphia and China. Are you going there for money? Are you there to create a second market? It's none of those things, and it's all of those things." She adds that the residency includes an important element of cultural exchange: On June 1, the orchestra will give the world premiere of Interrupted Dream by Chinese composer Du Wei.
The behind-the-scenes arrangement is as unusual as the quick timing. Tours and sponsorships are often arranged through third-party agents and brokers. This trip was assembled directly by the orchestra, emphasizing the Philadelphia Orchestra's history, including its pathbreaking 1973 tour of China shortly after Richard Nixon's opened diplomatic ties near the end of Mao Tse-tung's reign.
Indeed, past visits have forced the orchestra to be light on its feet. In 1973, the orchestra switched its program from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 to the Symphony No. 6 without rehearsal to please Madame Mao. Then-music director Eugene Ormandy made an impromptu guest appearance conducting China's Central Philharmonic. More recently, a massive earthquake in Szechuan province prompted violinist Phil Kates to spur fund-raising that yielded a rebuilt school named in the orchestra's honor.
Vulgamore says other concerns — such as European tours — need not be displaced by annual China visits. "I'm not there to take money away from Chinese orchestras," she said. "It's another place where the Philadelphia Orchestra should play that's part of our heritage."