BEIJING — A stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, an elegantly dressed Chinese man named Victor Kuo this week stood in a futuristic building more closely resembling a spaceship than a concert hall.
In 1979, as China was still awakening from the Cultural Revolution, Kuo had waited overnight outside Beijing’s Capital Stadium to buy tickets for a keenly anticipated performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was joined by members of China’s Central Philharmonic before a crowd of 18,000.
Now Kuo was back to hear the BSO once more, this time clutching a bag full of memorabilia, including an autographed program from that historic concert. With an excitement undimmed by the decades, he recalled watching conductor Seiji Ozawa, during his curtain call 35 years ago, running on the stadium’s racetrack around the entire orchestra, his arms overflowing with flowers.
“I was so touched, so moved,” Kuo said.
On Thursday night, with Kuo in attendance, the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit took the stage in Beijing before a sold-out audience of 2,000 and gave the downbeat on the orchestra’s Asian tour. The concert marked the BSO’s first performance in China since its landmark visit in 1979, when it was the first American orchestra to visit after the normalization of diplomatic relations.
Representatives of four Beijing dailies were present Thursday as well as local television news. The night ended — after a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in which the orchestra seemed determined to burn away the fog of its own collective jet lag — with Dutoit, having been warmly recalled to the podium by applause several times, all but pulling the BSO players off the stage with him.
Anticipation ran high for this concert, the first of two in Beijing, in part because the BSO is one of the last major American orchestras to visit China during the country’s most recent era of rapid development, a period that has also seen an emerging middle class embracing Western classical music in vast numbers.
The tour’s opener came on a hectic and jittery day in Beijing, as Chinese tourists from around the country took advantage of the May Day holiday and poured into the nation’s capital, clogging its streets and subways. Meanwhile, news spread by word of mouth of what Chinese television later called a terrorist attack in a train station in the country’s western Xinjiang region. Attempts to access almost any reporting from US and European-based news sources proved futile, as their websites appeared to be blocked.
Security measures at public sites in Beijing are tight even on typical days. On Thursday at the concert hall, all bags passed through metal detectors, and security guards patted down every entering member of the audience.
The hall, known as the National Center for the Performing Arts, is the most prominent representation of China’s classical boom, and of its desire to establish itself as a cultural power of a force commensurate with its economic might. An enormous, silver egg-shaped edifice of some 2.4 million square feet, the NCPA opened in late 2007. It was designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, and the entire building is surrounded by a reflecting pool under which one enters through glass-ceilinged corridors, where you can peer up at the sky through rippling water. Strangely, the acoustics of the NCPA’s main concert hall appear to have received far less attention than other aspects of the building, and the orchestra’s sound at Thursday’s all-Russian program, performed last week at Boston’s Symphony Hall, was notably dry and unflattered by the space.
The crowd that turned out for the occasion was young and casually dressed by American standards. Close observers of China’s classical scene relate tales from a few years ago of first-time audience members speaking on cellphones and walking around the hall during performances.
But by now, at least at the NCPA in the two programs this critic attended, audiences appear to have fully adopted the conventions of Western concert halls. Thursday’s crowd in fact listened to the BSO in the kind of rapt silence that many American ensembles might wish for in their home venues, a fact not lost on the players themselves.
“It wasn’t a frivolous ‘I have to see a concert’ kind of thing,” said principal bass Edwin Barker. “It was as if the music really meant something.”
Reminiscences of the 1979 stadium concert were a recurring theme of the orchestra’s Beijing visit. BSO violinist Sheila Fiekowsky, for instance, recalled befriending a Central Philharmonic violinist named Xiao-Hong Fu, who had spent the years of the Cultural Revolution cleaning latrines. Communicating by pointing to words in a dictionary, Fu had told her that she wanted to leave China and come to America. (She eventually did just that, after BSO violinist Marylou Speaker invited her and her husband to live at Speaker’s home, and found them both sponsors for their continued studies at New England Conservatory.)
The recollections continued flowing on Friday afternoon, when the BSO convened a meeting for three of its musicians with three former members of the Central Philharmonic who had played that night under Ozawa’s baton. The six musicians met at a restaurant overlooking the Forbidden City and the mausoleum where Mao Zedong’s body lies preserved on public view in a crystal coffin.
Violinist Zhao Fang, now 83, arrived at the restaurant early, clutching a worn, yellowed album of photos from the 1970s. He spoke of his career in the Central Philharmonic, which for 10 long years was reduced to performing arrangements of revolutionary Chinese operas, with a few notable exceptions. Zhao explained that his ensemble was pressed into diplomatic service in 1971, when it was asked to perform a Beethoven Symphony for a visit by Henry Kissinger.
The key question at the time was: which symphony? The Fifth, Zhao recounted, was deemed ideologically suspect because of its fate motif, and the “Eroica” was likewise dismissed for its Napoleonic associations. In the end, the apparently innocuous “Pastoral” Symphony was chosen.
When the three BSO musicians arrived at the restaurant, the photos from 1979 quickly came out. “Crazy, this is just crazy,” said BSO bassist Lawrence Wolfe, staring at one album as if having been shown a time capsule. The group later discussed everything from instruments to the more basic arrangements of musical life in the two countries. “Do you have a union here?” asked one BSO musician. The answer was no.
Another running theme of the BSO’s Beijing visit was the city’s own transformation. It has seen explosive population growth over the last two decades, and during the boom of construction preceding the 2008 Olympics, many of the city’s traditional low-rise neighborhoods were cleared away to make room for new development. Meanwhile, even as the number of subway lines has risen from two to 17, traffic has swelled to such a state that the government now restricts driving to specific days dictated by the last digit of one’s license plate.
Many of the musicians had time to ponder city traffic up close while on buses for an excursion to the Great Wall.
Others were invited to teach master classes, as they had done in their previous visit. Thursday afternoon, Barker, for instance, worked with bass players from Beijing’s Central Conservatory.
Watching the seriousness with which his advice on the minute details of fingering and articulation was absorbed, or for that matter the instant rapport present at the stadium concert reunion, one could see how the impact of tours like this comes not only from the high-profile concerts but from the countless smaller interactions among musicians, and around music itself.
The BSO is on a 13-day tour to China and Japan. Next stop: Shanghai.