Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Phila. Orchestra returns to China

GULANGYU, China - In a hilltop mansion on this tiny tourist island off the southern port of Xiamen, Yin Chengzong, 67, plunges into the Yellow River Concerto on his Steinway grand piano. Almost 40 years ago Yin, with three others, composed this anthem of the Cultural Revolution, universally maligned by Western critics but deeply beloved by millions here.

In 1973, Yin Chengzong was a young Beijing pianist when he was given the rare opportunity to perform with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1973, Yin Chengzong was a young Beijing pianist when he was given the rare opportunity to perform with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.Read more

GULANGYU, China - In a hilltop mansion on this tiny tourist island off the southern port of Xiamen, Yin Chengzong, 67, plunges into the

Yellow River Concerto

on his Steinway grand piano. Almost 40 years ago Yin, with three others, composed this anthem of the Cultural Revolution, universally maligned by Western critics but deeply beloved by millions here.

As he plays, a student from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music - back home in China for a month of study with Yin - waits for a lesson. So does a 14-year-old Beijing boy, whose father calls Yin "a master of Chinese piano."

Monday night, the master will be in the audience at Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities when the Philadelphia Orchestra performs the Yellow River Concerto, as it did in September 1973, when it made the first-ever visit by an American orchestra to Communist China.

On that long-ago evening, Yin, then a 32-year-old piano phenomenon, was at the keyboard; this time the soloist will be Chinese superstar Lang Lang, 26. In 1973, China was wracked by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution; in 2008 it is struggling to recover from the recent earthquake even as it reacts to questions about its treatment of Tibet and prepares for its signal moment on the world stage as host of the Summer Olympics.

In Yin's tranquil home on Gulangyu one recent day, images of his - and his homeland's - tumultuous past were everywhere, the parlor walls filled with highlights of a life that swung from stardom to obscurity and back.

There's a giant photo of a young Yin and Chairman Mao, sitting side by side in overstuffed armchairs after a 1963 performance.

Yin and Premier Chou En-lai, holding high their little red books of Mao's quotations.

Yin and President Richard Nixon, shoulder to shoulder after a concert in 1972.

And one of his favorites: a grainy shot of Yin playing an upright piano backstage for maestro Eugene Ormandy during the 1973 trip on which the Philadelphia Orchestra made history.

Those were the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, when China was sealed off from the world and musicians could not freely play Western classics. The mere memory of performing the Yellow River Concerto with the Philadelphians moves Yin.

"The sound was incredible," he recalls. "We never heard anything like it."

He looks forward to hearing it again at Monday's gala 35th-anniversary performance. Kicking off the China leg of its Asian tour, the orchestra will perform the same program as in 1973: Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 and the Yellow River Concerto.

After two performances in Beijing, it will continue to Guangzhou and Shanghai.

In 1973, Yin said he was "shocked" by the richness of the concerto under Ormandy's baton.

"I could hear all the details that we wanted from the piece but never heard performed before," said Yin, who emigrated to the United States in 1983 and now shuttles between China and New York, where he lives with his pianist wife.

If Yin was inspired, the critics who accompanied the orchestra in 1973 were less so.

The New York Times critic, Harold C. Schonberg, wrote off the concerto as "movie music" and "trash." He further incensed Mao's powerful wife, Jiang Qing, by reporting that Philadelphia musicians derided the piece as the "Yellow Fever" concerto, according to authors Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, who chronicled the orchestra's tour in their book, Rhapsody in Red.

The Inquirer's music critic, Daniel Webster, was more diplomatic, describing the concerto as "simplistic and derivative."

Even today, critics try to outdo one another in putting it down as composition-by-committee schmaltz.

"I get used to it," Yin said. "Critics see it as light music. At that time, you could not do anything by yourself; it had to be by committee. I never thought this concerto would be a great concerto."

Instead, Yin and the three other musicians who wrote the concerto had another goal: saving the piano from obliteration by the culture warriors under Mao's wife.

Unless musicians like Yin could come up with compositions with a political purpose, they feared the piano would be banished all together. To that end, the Yellow River Concerto is based on the melodies of another revolutionary composer, Xian Xinghai, and also borrows from the communist anthems "The East Is Red" and "The Internationale."

"We wanted to create something that people would understand immediately," Yin said. "And all Chinese people love it."

Indeed, they do.

When Yin left China for the United States in 1983, after years of ostracism following the Cultural Revolution, one of the first things he did was register the piece for the four composers with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

He said he has collected royalties from orchestras and broadcasters in 53 countries, and has performed the concerto more than 500 times. A recording by China's Central Philharmonic (for which he, like everyone else in that era, received no payment) has sold more than three million albums. The resulting gold album hangs prominently in his home, across from a photograph of the churning brown waters of the Yellow River.

In 1969, Jiang Qing actually dispatched the team of composers to remote rural towns along the Yellow River to seek inspiration. For three weeks they worked among boatmen, hauling cargo, living with peasant families, and eating potato skins.

The committee, led by Yin, wrote the concerto in three months. In 1970, at its debut, the country's leaders, especially Jiang Qing and her rival Chou En-lai, embraced it.

From childhood, Yin was one of China's most promising pianists. The son of a wealthy banker, he was born in the very family mansion he restored in 2005. Before the Communists took control of China, Gulangyu was home to British, French and American traders and financiers, who built big homes among the island's verdant hills. So many families owned pianos that the enclave was dubbed "Piano Island," a name that holds today.

Yin studied at conservatories in Shanghai and Beijing before heading to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He placed second in the Soviet Union's Tchaikovsky competition in 1962.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, he was a soloist with the Central Philharmonic. Over the next decade, musicians, along with others in the educated classes, were banished to the countryside to do farmwork. Western music was banned and, for a while, so was the playing of Western instruments.

In a 1967 stunt that Yin says he designed to save the piano from condemnation, his "propaganda team" for the orchestra moved an upright piano to the center of Tiananmen Square, where for three days Yin played revolutionary tunes. The first day, a crowd of about 200 gathered; on the second day the number doubled. By the third day the crowd had swelled to several thousand, he recalled, adding, "I was trying to get the support of the people."

During the Cultural Revolution, musicians were allowed to perform only eight "model operas." Troupes were dispatched to factories and communes to perform the same works over and over. Yin transcribed orchestral music from one of the operas, The Legend of Red Lantern, for the piano, and his 1968 performance at the Great Hall of the People, attended by 10,000, was broadcast across the country. "Because of this piece, many Chinese heard the piano for the first time," Yin said.

He became a favorite of Jiang Qing, whose notorious "Gang of Four" led the Cultural Revolution.

The 1973 visit by the Philadelphia Orchestra was part of a gradual opening of China to the United States that started with "ping-pong diplomacy" - a 1971 U.S.-China exchange of players - and led to Nixon's visit in 1972.

In a mark of the political importance of the visit, Chou En-lai and Jiang Qing attended separate performances. Programs had to be carefully vetted by the Chinese side: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was out. Too militaristic. But the Sixth Symphony, with its pastoral themes, was just fine.

Yin said Chinese musicians were hopeful that the tour would be a harbinger of a relaxation of restrictions on performing Western music. But that was a miscalculation: No sooner had the Philadelphians left, than the Chinese launched another campaign against Western composers. Beethoven was out. Ditto Schubert.

Political analysts are split on who launched the campaign - Jiang Qing, trying to rein in her rival Chou? Or Chou, trying to thwart Mao's ambitious wife?

Whatever motivated them, limitations on Western classical music remained firmly in place until 1976, when Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended with the jailing of Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.

As one of Jiang Qing's favorites, Yin was regarded with suspicion and held for 10 months in a room without a piano at the headquarters of the Central Philharmonic. "I practiced in my mind," he said.

"Every day, every minute, they ask me: 'What did you do during the Cultural Revolution?' I said: 'I'm not a politician. I'm a musician.' "

Once released, he was barred from performing for four years.

Finally, he left for the United States in 1983, with $60 in his wallet. After settling in New York, he was invited by the Peoria Orchestra to perform the Yellow River Concerto in Illinois. He recalled that he had no score and had to pay $500 to borrow the Philadelphia Orchestra's copy.

These days Yin splits his time, performing and teaching in China and New York; last year he gave 40 concerts in China.

In January, the island of Gulangyu opened a museum in his honor called Yin Chengzong's Music House. With undulating, grooved wood walls, the space looks like the inside of a grand piano. Inside are displays of Yin's old photos, as well as a huge photograph of a recital at Carnegie Hall.

Yin proudly takes a visitor on a tour as his signature concerto plays simultaneously on five gigantic flat-screen televisions.

"Everyone thought I was gone, that I was finished," he said. "But I've come back again."