WASHINGTON - Only in the global world of symphony orchestra musicians would a debut tour also have elements of a homecoming.

Beijing's China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra is positioned as the voice of that nation's younger generation. It's on a tour that both signals a turning point in the Philadelphia Orchestra's cultural exchange with China and has turned into a media frenzy. But Friday's concert at the Kimmel Center may mean something more visceral to NCPA musicians 6,867 miles from home.

"When I was going to Pittsburgh years ago, I stopped off in Philadelphia just to get a cheesesteak," said bass trombonist Wei Wang with obvious relish, in barely accented English. "This time, I'll have a cheesesteak as well."

Roughly 25 percent of the four-year-old orchestra's members, whose average age is 30, have studied at U.S. schools, from the Curtis Institute - including star soloist Yuja Wang - to Houston's Rice University. The seven-city tour is at least partly an outgrowth of the Philadelphia Orchestra's five-year plan of annual visits to the NCPA (running through 2017) that has included master classes and "side-by-side" concerts mixing the Beijing and Philadelphia musicians.

But now . . . .

"These guys want to get on the scoreboard," said Nicholas Platt, the former ambassador and veteran diplomat who is the Philadelphia Orchestra's China Initiative senor adviser. "It's a very big deal for the Chinese - a validation of the two-way-street concept."

The operative words here are soft power. "The China government has realized that it [Western symphonic music] is not visible but has huge power. It's music without any borders or differences of language," said chief conductor Lü Jia on Monday prior to the Kennedy Center concert.

The question is whether the orchestra is ready. Maybe, maybe not. But modern China operates at a quick tempo. Walk past an unfinished skyscraper in Beijing and people joke, "It'll be finished by morning." The four-year history of the NCPA orchestra could be equal to eight years any place else.

"Every musician is handpicked," said pianist Wang. "They're almost like soloists. Fast learners, passionate players, very focused." And there's a familial chemistry: Most players know 10 to 20 colleagues from their conservatory years. Many knew Wang, now 27, as a kid.

Still, the risk is huge in a tour of blue-chip visibility, including Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Washington's Kennedy Center, New York's Alice Tully Hall, and the Kimmel Center. Some 16 news organizations, mostly Chinese, covered the Washington concert on Monday. Cameras set up in the Kennedy Center lobby monitored the audience's exit reactions. "You like?" asked one reporter.

"In some ways, an orchestra this young can never really be prepared for such a grand international tour," said managing director Patrick Xiaolong Ren. "But there must be a first time. Such challenge and pressure . . . will be immensely useful for the future growth of this orchestra."

Housed in the architectural wonder that is the National Centre for the Performing Arts - nicknamed "The Egg" for its oval glass dome - the orchestra closely follows American models. Though not unionized, it has a tenure track. A third of its funding comes from the government; the rest is raised from sponsors and other sources. Though not the most highly paid, the players have exalted working conditions, and play 60 percent opera and 40 percent symphonic concerts. No pops or celebrations of the revolution, which Ren believes don't contribute to artistic growth. Rehearsals are conducted in British-accented English.

But if the music-making has an accent, it's Russian. Western classical music was banned during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) - but behind closed doors conductor Lü, now 50, heard Tchaikovsky melodies sung around the house by his Western-trained parents. After the Cultural Revolution, his mentors were Russian-trained, dating back to friendlier periods between China and the Soviet Union.

"It's part of our heart and blood," Lü said of Tchaikovsky, whose Symphony No. 5 is on the Philadelphia program. "The style of the music is closer to Chinese thought - passionate, outgoing, and with beautiful melodies."

 Currently, some 40 million Chinese youngsters are studying Western piano. Though many Chinese instrumentalists hold key positions in the best American and European orchestras, players sometimes give up those jobs to go home. Meng Yang was principal cellist in Memphis but returned after his family suffered illnesses and then was displaced by a Sichuan Province earthquake. Pianist Wang seems as Westernized as any musician could be, but her current tour is part of her residency at the NCPA.

"It's heartwarming. My old teacher comes to hear my concerts," she says. "I love the way I'm treated - a bit like a princess. Women in China are encouraged to be independent and free. My generation is like that." But in deference to her father, she tones down her usual miniskirted concert wear back home.

So far on tour, reviews have been favorable ("distinctive and often quite powerful," said the Washington Post), though noting problems in the wind section. New Yorkers hear the best of the best, and Philadelphians are used to their excellent home orchestra. What if the NCPA Orchestra is found seriously wanting? "The Chinese are grown-ups," said Platt. "What they're looking for is audience turnout. The critics will say what they want to say."

In a better-case scenario, might Chinese orchestras get so good that they'll no longer need to import the Fabulous Philadelphians? Says Platt, "I think that's going to be a long time coming."


The National Performing Arts Centre Orchestra

8 p.m. Friday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.

Tickets: $28-$95.

Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.orgEndText