For many local concertgoers, Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 brings to mind the 1940 Walt Disney blockbuster Fantasia, with the Philadelphia Orchestra's accompaniment to scenes of pastel flying ponies, unicorns, and centaurs.
But the so-called Pastoral Symphony - which the orchestra performs Friday through next Sunday under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda - warrants another historic footnote. In 1973, during the Philadelphians' first tour of China, it became the focus of a clash of wills between then-maestro Eugene Ormandy and Jiang Qing, better known in the West as Madame Mao, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.
In today's China, Western classical music is flourishing, with new concert halls in every big city and music conservatories bursting with talent. But in 1973, it was a very different story, and just settling on an orchestra program was as sensitive as negotiating a treaty.
President Richard Nixon had made his historic trip to Beijing in 1972 to meet Mao, ending 23 years of isolation between the two nations:
At the time, China was in the depths of the repressive Cultural Revolution, and Chinese musicians were barred from performing Western classical music, which was deemed too decadent and pointless. The performing arts had one purpose: to exalt the socialist state and the People's Liberation Army. There were only eight approved "model" productions, including the committee-composed Yellow River Concerto and the military-themed ballet The Red Detachment of Women.
And the cultural arbiter who decided those eight model productions for an audience of 800 million Chinese citizens was Madame Mao.
An exception to the no-Western-music rule was made for the visiting Philadelphians, who were to be permitted to play forbidden Western symphonic music in the name of cultural diplomacy. In the months before the September tour, the U.S. side tried to nail down an acceptable program. Some suggestions - Richard Strauss' Don Juan and Claude Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun - were rejected by the Chinese as too bourgeois. But Beethoven would be fine. Ormandy selected the Fifth Symphony.
On Sept. 12, 1973, hours before the orchestra's charter flight arrived in Shanghai, Nicholas Platt, a young American foreign service officer stationed in Beijing, received bad news. The Chinese hosts needed to revise the program. They did not want to hear the Fifth. They wanted Beethoven's Sixth, the Pastoral.
The order, Platt was told, came from "the top," which could only mean one person: Madame Mao. The former actress, who terrified everyone around her, controlled all things relating to the arts, down to the smallest details, like the orchestra's program.
It fell on Platt's shoulders to break the news to Ormandy. After the charter flight landed in Shanghai, the tall diplomat took a seat next to the diminutive conductor for the connecting flight to Beijing. Platt gently broached the subject of switching to the Pastoral.
As Platt recalled in an interview last year, Ormandy sniffed, "I don't like that symphony. I hate that symphony. I won't play it. I'll play the Fifth, I'll play the Seventh."
Ormandy thought the ending of the Pastoral was too weak. On top of that, he didn't have the scores for the Sixth. The maestro dug in: "I don't want to play it."
Ever the diplomat, Platt knew the importance of the request. To cross Madame Mao would be to court disaster and doom the tour before it even started. "I just started to make things up," he said.
Thinking fast, Platt explained that Chinese audiences favored program music that evoked scenes or images like moonlight on bamboo. "And this is a great piece of program music," Platt enthused.
He explained to Ormandy that the current regime in China came to power through a peasant revolution. "And the Pastoral is all about peasantry," Platt said.
He pressed on: "A big storm comes up in the fourth movement. They think that's the revolution! And then there's a very peaceful, triumphant, quiet ending, which they regard as the triumph of the Communist party."
Ormandy looked at Platt. Weary and jet-lagged, he uttered, "Well, when in Rome, we'll do as the Romans wish. But you have to get me the scores by tomorrow."
That was no small matter. There was no orchestra in China the size of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was traveling with 106 musicians. The Chinese hosts dispatched military couriers to fetch music. An orchestra in Shanghai lent them 70 scores, and the Central Philharmonic in Beijing came up with the rest.
On Sept. 16, after a tour of the Red Star commune, the Philadelphians arrived at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities for their third concert, dubbed "The Big One" because it would draw China's top leaders. The auditorium was ringed with police and military guards.
Madame Mao entered the drafty auditorium wearing a simple black silk dress - looking a little like Eleanor Roosevelt, Platt thought - and carrying a white purse. She sat front and center, next to Gretel Ormandy, the conductor's wife.
First up was the Pastoral. The Philadelphia musicians struggled to follow the handwritten scores, which had notes in German. The bowing marks for violin were different from what they were accustomed to, but the musicians knew the piece so well, they simply made mental corrections as they went along.
The musicians had only one chance to run through the piece before the performance. But they had played the symphony so many times they could basically have run through it with their eyes closed. "It wouldn't have mattered if some pages were missing," violinist Larry Grika recalled in a recent interview. "They knew the symphony cold," Platt said, "and, of course, they followed Ormandy's direction and played it very well."
Madame Mao clapped after every movement, ignoring (or unaware of) convention, and led a standing ovation at the end.
After the performance, she initially declined to meet the musicians, but was talked into it by her aides. The performers were already back at their hotel, getting off the bus, when a guard ordered them to turn around and return to the concert hall. There was a near-mutiny, but no one, not even hungry, tired musicians, could stand up to Madame Mao. Back at the hall, she presented each member with a silk packet of sweet-scented cassia flowers from her garden. Everyone posed for a group photograph on stage.
Platt summed up the whole episode: "Crisis averted."
Maybe for the orchestra, but not for Madame Mao.
Two weeks after Ormandy and his musicians departed, the People's Daily launched a new attack on Western music, taking particular aim at Beethoven and charging that symphonies like the Sixth would "water down the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses." U.S. diplomats who made a living reading the tea leaves of Chinese politics thought it was a sign of behind-the-scenes fighting between Madame Mao and her political rival, Premier Zhou Enlai. Madame Mao, after all, was the one who had made such a big flap over hearing the Sixth.
At a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Ormandy was asked about the renewed political brouhaha over Beethoven. The 74-year-old maestro told reporters he never thought of the great German composer's music as bourgeois and hoped the Beethoven backlash was just a passing phase in China.
It wasn't. Beethoven was not performed again publicly for more than three years in China and, even then, it was . . . the Fifth.
Jennifer Lin was an Inquirer foreign correspondent based in China from 1996 to 1999. Her family memoir, "Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family," is due out in March.
Noseda Conducts Beethoven
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 and works by Ravel and Petrassi, with pianist Alexander Toradze.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. next Sunday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets.
Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.