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New Documentary Shows The Philadelphia Orchestra's Role In China's Classical Music Renaissance

During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 in the People's Republic of China, Western classical music all but disappeared from Chinese cultural life. The Philadelphia Orchestra's trailblazing 1973 trip to China helped turn that around. Led by Music Director Eugene Ormandy, and part of a larger plan of cross-cultural exchange, the tour planted the seeds for a relationship between China and the Orchestra that has grown and blossomed in the last three decades.

A new documentary film, Beethoven in Beijing, shows the role that this groundbreaking tour of cultural diplomacy, and subsequent visits by the Orchestra, have played in the revival of classical music in China, where it now flourishes. 

Jennifer Lin, the film's co-director and writer, joined with Sam Katz, executive director of History Making Productions, to co-produce Beethoven In Beijing. The film is scheduled to air on April 16th, 2021 at 9 PM on PBS's Great Performances.  WRTI's Susan Lewis spoke with Lin and Katz on Zoom about this project—which tells the story with archival tapes and photographs, visual and audio assets from recent Philadelphia Orchestra tours, and the use of animation. (Photos included in the Zoom interview are courtesy of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives and History Making Productions).

The idea for the film

In 2008, on the 35th anniversary of the historic tour, Jennifer Lin, then a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, traveled to China to report. "As I was interviewing Chinese concert goers," she says, "I was struck by the degree of affection the Chinese audience seemed to have for the Orchestra." And she thought, "This is a story that should be seen and heard, and not just read about."

The infamous Nixon tapes and other archives

The story begins in 1973, and soon we hear the voices of President Richard Nixon talking with Eugene Ormandy. Nixon had returned from his own historic trip to China the year before with plans for cultural exchange using delegations from the worlds of sports, science, academia, and music, with The Philadelphia Orchestra as its cultural ambassador.

"Luckily for us, Nixon was pretty obsessive about taping Oval Office conversations,"says Lin, who found the tape of a phone call between Ormandy, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It's enough to make any history buff a bit giddy.

"I was a Watergate groupie," acknowledges Katz. "And, of course, it was those tapes that brought Nixon down. But I also am very proud of the capacity of our company, particularly our archivist, Jon Kohl, to find things that were not generally known to be available. We had also great access to the Orchestra archives and the Ormandy collection."

Add to those resources, home movies taken by U.S. diplomat Nicholas Platt, who worked for a time in China and accompanied Nixon on his 1972 trip to Beijing; and news footage from TV reporter, Kati Marton. "Archives and historical documentaries," says Katz, "are linked at the hip."

Telling the story through people

The tour was two weeks long, during which the Orchestra played six concerts, including one attended by Chairman and Madame Mao.

Credit Courtesy of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives
Following a performance in Beijing, musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra pose for a photograph onstage with the wife of Chairman Mao, Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao.

The history comes alive with the recollections of people who lived it. The film features commentary from musicians from the Orchestra, past and present. Those who went on the 1973 tour include Davyd Booth, Anthony Orlando, Herb Light, Renard Edwards, Larry Grika, Herold Klein, Booker Rowe, and the late Emilio Gravagno.

It also features Chinese audience members and artists introduced to the music as young people, including classical superstar pianist Lang Lang, who has performed in Philadelphia and on tour with the Orchestra.

The experience of Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun, who was 16 when the Orchestra came in 1973, goes to the heart of the film's story.  

"[Tan Dun] had been sent to the countryside to work on a commune, as everyone in his generation had been," says Lin. "And back then in China, people didn't have access to radios and TV or even to newspapers. So you got your information from the daily broadcast on the loudspeaker, in the commune."

"He tells the story about working in the fields and hearing a report about The Philadelphia Orchestra being in the country and hearing just snippets of Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies. And it kind of blew his mind."

Decades later, Tan Dun's work, Nu Shu, The Secret Songs of Women, honored traditions of his home region. The work was co-commissioned and premiered in the U.S. by The Philadelphia Orchestra in 2013, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Principal Harpist Elizabeth Hainen. The next year, the Orchestra took it back to China.

Credit History Making Productions
Harpist Elizabeth Hainen and composer Tan Dun with village women featured in the symphony after a performance on tour.

The significance of Beethoven: a symbol of classical music and revolutionary power

While the film is not strictly just about Beethoven, says Lin, his music is "a kind of leitmotif " through the film. And there is the story about the 1973 trip. "So the wife of Chairman Mao insisted on Beethoven's Sixth and Ormandy was not real happy with that because he had prepared to play the Fifth."

"And [Madame Mao] would have had to have known what the Fifth was," says Katz. "Before 1949, western music was very prominent in China; people knew about it, and Beethoven was a very important revolutionary character." 

In 1973, Ormandy conceded, and performed Beethoven's Sixth, titled Pastorale, or Recollections of Country Life. But the film's ending suggests that years later the score was evened (so to speak).

In 2017, Yannick performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with a choir from the National Centre for the Performing Arts. "So we end with a big ta-da," says Lin, "and it's Beethoven's night. So really Beethoven serves as the standard for classical music in general."

Credit History Making Productions
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the National Centre for the Performing Arts during the 2017 tour of Asia.

A relationship that continues today

In the years that followed the 1973 tour, other American orchestras visited China, but none made as many trips as Philadelphia, which went back for its second visit in 1993 with Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch, and in recent years has toured China regularly, making a total of 12 visits (and counting). Tours often include concerts by the entire Orchestra, as well as chamber concerts, and visits to community centers.

Credit History Making Productions
Philadelphia Orchestra musicians Che-Hung Chen, Ricardo Morales, and Ying Fu take time from their touring schedule in 2017 to perform for children at the Eastman Music factory in Beijing.

And today, says Lin, "[the cultural exchange] is very much a two-way street," with Chinese orchestras visiting the U.S. and initiatives such as Lang Lang's work to put piano labs in Philadelphia and other American city schools.

"And we intentionally end [the film] with the concert in 2019 in Philadelphia where The Philadelphia Orchestra performed side-by-side with the Shanghai Philharmonic. They performed a piece by this young Juillard-trained composer Peng Peng. It's the kind of evolution we're trying to show."

"Philadelphia should be very proud of its Orchestra," says Katz. "It would be great to see it as appreciated here as it is in China."

Watch the film's trailer:

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.