Cultural Achievements

Music has struck the right note for bilateral relations


Updated: 2022-04-15

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of US president Richard Nixon's visit to China, the Philadelphia Orchestra's tour to China a year later in 1973 started a breakthrough cultural exchange.

"Lots of people know about Ping-Pong Diplomacy. But not enough people know about music diplomacy, and how Zhou Enlai (and) the Chinese leadership really used music as a way of renewing relations with the West and the United States in particular," Jennifer Lin said during a recent online event by the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

A journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, Lin created and co-directed the feature-length documentary, Beethoven in Beijing, which premiered on PBS' Great Performances in 2021. The book about the trip — under the same title — is published on April 22.

Lin said the reason she wrote the stories is that she believed they should be seen and heard as well as read about.

"When I went to the anniversary concert, I talked to a lot of Chinese people going to the concert, and I was really struck by the degree of nostalgia that everyone had for the Philadelphia Orchestra," Lin recalled. "It wasn't just an interest in classical music; it was an interest in this orchestra. And people really remember the 1973 trip and how that was kind of the start of something of more of a cultural relationship between China and the United States."

Booker Rowe, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 50 years before his retirement in 2020, was one of the musicians who traveled with the orchestra to China in 1973. He remembered many details of the trip, including two lines of official greeters when they arrived at 9 pm on Sept 13; unstoppable applause by the enthusiastic Chinese audience during the concert; and people being toasted to international friendship at the welcoming banquet.

"One of the things that I think helps relations is getting together in groups," Rowe said.

The Philadelphia Orchestra gave six performances in Beijing and Shanghai during its 1973 tour. Chinese and US artists played The Yellow River Piano Concerto, one of the masterpieces of Chinese composer Xian Xinghai.

Based on a cantata, the piece has become a part of the Western symphonic repertoire. The orchestra also performed Beethoven's classic Pastoral Symphony and the Chinese classic The Moon Over a Fountain.

Rowe's most recent trip to China was 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the outbreak, the cultural exchange between the US and China, particularly in the arts and music, was going strong.

"We traveled with the Philadelphia Orchestra three times. And, in fact, any major orchestras in the United States and in the world really included China on their touring schedule," Lin said. "So, up until the pandemic, there had been a very robust exchange. You would see all the top orchestras performing in Shanghai and Beijing."

Of the educational connection, "there's a lot of cross-cultural exchange going on. The Juilliard School recently opened a branch in Tianjin, China. The Curtis Music School doesn't have a foothold in China in terms of a school, but there is a lot of exchange going on," Lin added.

"You know, the big question is now what happens when the pandemic goes. Time will tell when touring resumes for orchestras."

Since the 1973 debut in China, the Philadelphia Orchestra has returned to China for tours and performances 12 times. The orchestra also has been trying to innovate by cooperating with Chinese musicians such as Tan Dun, pianist Lang Lang and composer Gong Tianpeng.

Lin said those renowned musicians who helped edit her film became vital characters in her movie because "each of them represented different phases in China's revival of classical music".

"As in the movie, music was really essentially the medium that US President Nixon and China's Premier Zhou joined together (on) and dismantled 25 years of isolation between the two nations," said Jia Chen, the founding dean of the music department at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology.

Chen also was the first classical musician admitted to the mid-career Master's in Public Administration program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

"[Music] provides an endless possibility for the two nations to co-develop interdisciplinary programs, both on the education side and performing arts industry as a whole," Chen said.

"Everybody would love to come to China to perform, and we also would love to send our own musicians overseas to perform. And finally, I think perhaps most importantly, is reuniting the emotions. So music provides a platform for these two nations to learn more, understand more about each other," she added.

"I don't know what will happen in the future. But I'm certain that American and Western orchestras will want to continue going to China," Lin said.

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