No Western performing group can claim to have had a closer relationship with China than the Philadelphia Orchestra. Certainly not in the 20th century.

As the first American orchestra to perform on Chinese soil, its visit to Beijing and Shanghai in 1973 made history and, unsurprisingly, the 40th anniversary of that episode has become a cause célèbre in both China and the United States.

The entire Philadelphia Orchestra is on a concert tour that started on Friday, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and is continuing through Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing before finishing, next weekend, at The Venetian Theatre, in Macau. Along the way, the orchestra's residency programme (now in the second of a five-year series) will see interactive exchanges with host musicians and the wider communities in the cities it visits.

"I see this residency as the beginning of 'what happens next' in the remarkable bond between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the People's Republic of China," writes Nicholas Platt, a veteran diplomat who was a staffer on US president Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, in the orchestra's press release. "[In 1973] it wasn't simply about performances. It was about creating working relationships between our peoples - and in 2013 it still is."

The current tour is the eighth the Philadelphia Orchestra has made to China - more than any other ensemble - but it has often been the context within which these visits have taken place that has been of most significance.

The Philly's second tour, in 1993, for example, was the first visit of any major group of Western artists to the mainland since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. And given the ice-breaking nature of the occasion - after almost four years of international isolation for China - the Philadelphians were greeted by the highest authority: President Jiang Zemin.

The sixth tour, in 2010, helped celebrate the launch of the Shanghai World Expo, one of the most significant moments in China's opening up to the world.

None of the subsequent visits, however, have come close to that of 1973 in terms of significance. "Historical legacy", "first cultural ambassador" and "iconic moment" are phrases used to refer to that tour in the press release for the current visit, but perhaps even they fail to capture how ground-breaking the concerts were.

Shanghai-born Hai-ye Ni, the orchestra's principal cello, who was then just one year old, was told about the visit, many years later, by her parents.

"My mother is a cellist and she performed [for] the Philadelphian musicians in 1973, with my father in the audience. But they only told me about that 1973 experience after I joined the orchestra in 2006. My immediate reaction was, 'Why didn't you tell me earlier'?" she says, with a laugh.

Like Ni, Deng Chuan, a violinist with the China National Symphony Orchestra - the Philadelphians' Beijing host this year - says she was too young (she was only six) to remember much about the visit 40 years ago.

"My only impression was that the American musicians were really high up on the musical pedestal," she says. "It was almost like a myth. [Chinese musicians] looked up at them with awe and admiration."

What these current players are not aware of, when asked, is the context of the 1973 visit, and the impact it had on both China and the United States. Nor have many of the events surrounding that tour been mentioned by the Chinese or American organisers of this year's visit.

The very first contact between China and the Philadelphia Orchestra came, in fact, three decades earlier - but both sides remain quiet about that, too.

A clue to the earlier contact, in 1940, came from none other than Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao. Hosting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973, she said to maestro Eugene Ormandy, its then 74-year-old chief conductor: "Thank you for this concert. We are old friends. You supported us in the 40s and we are grateful. China does not forget her friends."

The compliment, from one of the architects of the Cultural Revolution, threw everyone off guard, and prompted the Americans to ask themselves: "What did we do in the 1940s?"

It was established that the orchestra had helped with fundraising for war-torn China but there was no evidence of exactly when or how. Many years later, some thorough searching through the orchestra's archives - by this writer - uncovered the answer in the form of a small newspaper clipping, dated March 21, 1940.

It was an advertisement for a "gala symphony concert" to benefit the China Aids Council, a charity raising funds for relief work in China during the Japanese invasion. This was more than 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Aside from the much younger Ormandy, the star-studded event included conductor Leopold Stokowski, cellist Emanuel Feuermann and violinist Josef Szigeti. The Chinese representative was Dr Hu Shih, a literary great and Nationalist China's ambassador to America.

It should have been an occasion worth remembering for the unprecedented number of musical legends gathered under one roof in China's honour but the revolution of 1949 changed perceptions. And when Madame Mao fell into irreversible political disgrace, her connection to the story ensured it was buried even deeper.

Regardless, both sides seem happy to take 1973 as the initial point of contact; hence the current 40th anniversary extravaganza. But what exactly happened that year beyond what the orchestra's president, Allison Vulgamore, calls, in the press release, the establishment of "deep bonds"?


THE VISIT TOOK PLACE in the seventh year of the Cultural Revolution, the massive, decade-long political campaign unleashed by Mao Zedong that was intended to uproot all "revisionist" and capitalist elements in the country.

"When we heard of the news that we would be hosting the Philadelphia Orchestra, the No1 capitalist orchestra from the No1 capitalist country in the world, we all asked ourselves, 'What's going on?'" recalls Yim Hok-man, then a percussionist with the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra and now the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra's principal percussionist.

His orchestra played host to the Americans and the 65-year-old remembers the presentation of a huge gong with Chinese inscriptions on it that read: "A gift to the Philadelphia Orchestra presented by the Central Philharmonic Orchestra of the People's Republic of China, September 1973."

The recipient, percussionist Anthony Orlando - one of seven players from that tour who are still with the orchestra - remembers, "we were thrilled by the gift and did use it once in our concerts back home. But it did not quite suit our sound, so we just put it in storage".

The exchange between the musicians came to a climax when conductor Li Delun rehearsed the first move-ment of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Central Philharmonic. It was only the second time the Chinese musicians had played a "Western bourgeois" work since the Cultural Revolution had begun (the first being when they had performed for then US national security adviser and special envoy to China Henry Kissinger, in a closed-door session earlier in 1973).

But more surprises were to come. When Li finished the movement, he turned around and invited Ormandy to step onto the podium to take over as conductor, which the maestro did. According to the late New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg, who was with the tour, "The Central Philharmonic sounded like a different orchestra, suddenly playing with confidence and rhythmic assurance."

Ormandy was even more impressed with a piece Li led the Chinese string players in performing for him. Moonlight Reflected on Lake Erquan, an erhu solo piece arranged for Western strings, was premiered before members of the legendary "Philadelphia Sound"; and so pleased was Ormandy with it that he asked for the scores in the hope of scheduling it for the new concert season back home. Li, though, needed approval from his boss, Madame Mao.

To everyone's surprise, the first lady of China - in an unusual outfit of black dress with a leather handbag - showed up at the third of the Philadelphia Orchestra's four Beijing concerts. At the time, she was promoting works of art that fitted her ideas of a new socialist revolutionary culture, and had commissioned the Yellow River Piano Concerto.

"It was the best proof of our friendship that you brought Chinese music here to play," Schonberg quoted Madame Mao as saying to Ormandy, who had led his musicians in playing the concerto (for which he already had the scores). Having found Madame Mao in such an amiable mood, Li secured her approval and gave the American maestro the scores for Moonlight Reflected.

However, there was to be a sting in the tail. While the Americans returned home as national heroes - they were received by Philadelphia's mayor and sent a congratulatory note from the White House, signed by Nixon - their Chinese counterparts were made to suffer.

"We were sent down to rural Fangshan county for hard labour for a month after the Americans were gone," recalls Yim. "We had to make self-criticism for the 'resurgence of the black current of Western bourgeois culture'. The sessions were very tense and there was no more non-revolutionary work in our concerts thereafter."

There followed a nationwide polemical campaign against Western classical music, which lasted for almost six months. The Beijing Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, stated: "Some people are most enthusiastic and madly involved whenever Western classical music is brought out. They prostrate themselves in the worship of it and display a slavish mentality. Artistically they are national annihilators. Their worship of the West is in essence a worship of the bourgeoisie."

What provoked this backlash is not entirely clear but it almost certainly had something to do with Schonberg's having rubbished the socialist work by calling it the "Yellow Fever Concerto" and his description of it as "impressive mediocrity" characterised by "a bland and even vulgar eclecticism with every cliché of the Socialist realism style". It was, he said, a combination of "bastardised Chinese music and Warner Bros climaxes".

In contrast, The New York Times critic praised the Moonlight Reflected piece for its "melancholy" sentiment; but that was not Jiang's revolutionary model work and so wasn't viewed with the same hubris.

Following Schonberg's review, Li was asked to write to Ormandy to persuade him not to perform the Moonlight Reflected and suggest that to do so might have a negative impact on the new friendship between China and the US.

"Looking back, the Philadelphia Orchestra provided us with a breath of fresh air, brief but memorable," says Yim. "After seven years of performing nothing but a handful of propaganda works, it was a reminder of what [the] musical arts should be, and what a career musician should be doing.

"We had been quietly waiting for that day to come, if ever," he adds.

Echoes of that day will be heard on Thursday, when 40 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and 40 of the China National Symphony Orchestra - which replaced the now-defunct Central Philharmonic in 1996 - are set to perform on stage together at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the egg-shaped, futuristic venue in Beijing. One of the pieces on the programme will be that same melancholy work, Moonlight Reflected on Lake Erquan.

"I don't see the Philadelphia Orchestra as high up on the pedestal anymore," says violinist Deng, one of the 40 Chinese players. "We just came back from a two-month tour in the United States and have seen more top-level artists and ensembles.

"There are Chinese players in almost every orchestra in America and the platform for exchange is wide, thanks to our government's policy of reform and opening up. Through exchange, we've come to know our own position as a Chinese orchestra in the classical music world, and we set higher objectives."

Nevertheless, the special relationship the Philadelphia Orchestra has with China continues to stand out.

"At one point during our long tour in the States early this year, our concertmaster had to return to Beijing for another assignment," says Deng. "So we needed someone to lead the orchestra and play the long solo passage in A Hero's Life by Richard Strauss. The Philadelphia Orchestra helped us out by securing for us a brilliant young American violinist for the job. That's another good example of China-US collaboration."

Being the only mainland Chinese member of an orchestra with an unusually close connection with China, cellist Ni feels "extremely proud and very grateful for the great opportunity to be a member of it".

Western members of the orchestra are more open-minded and accepting of Chinese players than before, she says, but insists it is merit that counts.

An only child, she says: "I think my parents will be very proud of me coming back to Shanghai as a member of the very orchestra they encountered 40 years ago. I can honestly say their hard work has not been wasted.

"Performing aside, I look forward to the nice hotels and all the room service, too," she adds, laughing.

It only remains to be seen whether the current first lady, Madame Xi, or Peng Liyuan, a renowned performing artist in her own right, will do as Madame Mao did 40 years ago, and turn up to see the Philadelphia Orchestra play in China.


Oliver Chou is the author of A History of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra (1956-1996). The orchestra's tour of China will finish next weekend with concerts on Saturday and Sunday at the Venetian Theatre in Macau, each starting at 7.45pm. For tickets, visit or call 853 2882 8818.