When the Boston Symphony Orchestra last performed in China, it encountered a country deeply curious about Western classical music yet still reeling from the aftershocks of the Cultural Revolution.
There was the clarinetist in Shanghai whose instrument was held together with tape and glue. The distinguished concertmaster struggling to regain his technique after nine years in prison without access to his violin. And there was that indoor sports arena in Beijing — then Peking — where the BSO played to an adulatory crowd of 18,000, cheering beneath the portraits of Mao Zedong.
In 1979, the BSO was the first American orchestra to visit Communist China after the normalization of diplomatic relations. Now it is poised to return for the first time since that historic trip, departing Monday on a 13-day, $2.4 million Asian tour that will bring the orchestra back to a very different country.
Neither the sports arena nor the Revolutionary Committee Theater will be on the itinerary this time. In their stead will be gleaming new concert halls in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, each designed by renowned European-based architects and built within the last decade.
The concert-hall construction boom mirrors a larger explosion of interest in Western classical music more broadly, as scores of thousands of aspiring players compete to enter conservatories, factories churn out millions of pianos and violins, and the number of Chinese-born musicians studying and playing abroad has grown dramatically.
In short, the emerging Chinese middle class appears to be embracing the art form in numbers that make the heads of American orchestra administrators spin.
“It’s just staggering,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe in a recent interview. “[Pianist] Lang Lang talks about 40 million Chinese kids playing the piano. These are numbers we can only fantasize about. More and more people want a better life for their kids, and classical music is part of that. They can mass-produce the instruments and they can build the halls. And now the cultural infrastructure that took 80 to 100 years in this country to develop, they’ve done in 10 or 15 years.”
While some critics have been less impressed with the country’s broader culture of artistic creativity, there is no doubt that China’s classical explosion brought a major eastward push among ensembles based in Europe and America. China carries for many the whiff of the future — a vast and coveted new audience.
“On average once every three weeks, I’m contacted by some Western-based orchestra who wants to tour to China,” said Earl Blackburn, of the New York-based management firm Opus 3. “Most of them haven’t even gone, but it’s something that everyone is doing — and they hear it’s an incredible experience.”
Long road to new China tour
The BSO’s own grand return to China this week — to be followed by a pair of performances in Tokyo — has taken an unusually circuitous path. The orchestra was poised to perform in Beijing in 1999, directly following a Japan tour, when the accidental NATO bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade led to the orchestra’s invitation being rescinded at the very last minute.
This time around the BSO was approached by conductor Lorin Maazel, asking whether the orchestra would be interested in touring with him.
The BSO, which had no music director at the time, agreed, and plans were made, sponsors signed up, tickets sold, hotel rooms reserved. Earlier this year, however, Maazel suffered an undisclosed accident and pulled out of the entire tour as well as the orchestra’s final seven performances in Symphony Hall.
No stranger to the substitution game after years of health-related conductor cancellations, the BSO turned to the Swiss maestro Charles Dutoit. Could he possibly step in? Dutoit was on tour in Warsaw and had concerts already planned in Europe and Singapore as well as his first vacation in two years, but he withdrew from all of his commitments and agreed to replace Maazel for a total of 14 concerts. His move effectively saved the BSO from the logistical and artistic nightmare of touring with a string of substitutes.
“It’s a miracle that it all worked,” Dutoit said in a recent interview at Symphony Hall. “Everyone said you are completely crazy to do such a thing, but I did it because of my affection for this orchestra and this place. I love Boston. I first came here in 1959. And frankly I would not do this for many orchestras, maybe for no other.”
Dutoit himself is no stranger to performing in China, having led 17 previous tours since 1996, visits that included the first Chinese performances of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Britten’s “War Requiem.”
His earliest visit to China as a tourist was in 1982, when he first glimpsed the Pudong district of Shanghai, now a densely built area where the new hall stands: “It was a meadow with cows and barns,” Dutoit recalled. He has been speaking this week with members of the BSO, 10 in total, returning to China for the first time since 1979. “They won’t recognize the place,” he said.
Back to the future
When the Pan-Am 747 touched down in Shanghai on March 13, 1979, it was the first jumbo jet ever to land in China. In addition to the orchestra members, the plane was packed with an enormous press corps, including representatives from three Boston newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and CBS Television. Also on board were corporate sponsors, as the BSO had essentially financed the tour by selling all the extra seats for $50,000 each.
After landing, passengers were greeted by a familiar voice. Then-music director Seiji Ozawa had flown ahead the previous day, met the plane on the runway, boarded, and grabbed the PA system: “Welcome! This is Seiji. I hope you are not too tired and too drunk. Is everybody OK to play?”
The tour consisted of four concerts and a set of master classes in Shanghai. The Philadelphia Orchestra had been sent by President Nixon to China six years earlier, but in the intervening years, the Cultural Revolution had ended. By 1979, interest in Western classical music, previously a forbidden fruit, was surging.
“We were so overtaken by their enthusiasm, and the joy of meeting new people and musicians,” recalled BSO bassist Lawrence Wolfe, who will be returning this week with the orchestra.
While in Shanghai, Wolfe exchanged tapes and music with professors at the local conservatory, and seeds were evidently planted. Some 10 years later, students of these professors began winning auditions for advanced study at New England Conservatory. They requested Wolfe as their teacher.
The 1979 tour culminated in a nationally televised performance before massive crowds at Beijing’s Capital Stadium, where Ozawa led the BSO and guest members of China’s Central Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“It was one of the most electric experiences that I’ve ever had in my life,” recalled veteran arts executive Thomas Morris, then manager of the BSO. “There was no distinction really between the performers and the audience. Everything was melded together — the enthusiasm of the playing and the enthusiasm of the crowd. Plus working with the Chinese musicians, there was no common language other than the music, but the communication all around was still so clear. And Ozawa was like a rock star.”
The waves created by this concert continued to ripple outward. The mother of the BSO’s current principal harpist, Jessica Zhou, was among those guest Chinese musicians playing under Ozawa’s baton. And in the crowd was a 14-year-old Chinese girl who was studying the pipa, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, in part because Western classical instruments were still far too expensive for her family. This was her first live encounter with a Western orchestra.
“It was just huge,” recalled Wu Man in a recent phone interview. Now an acclaimed pipa virtuoso based in the United States, she has devoted her career to forging links between traditional Chinese styles and modern Western art music. “Plus here was one of the best American orchestras, but the conductor was Japanese! For us as teenagers it opened the doors, because we saw Asians can also perform Western music at a very high level.”
The BSO has not traveled internationally since 2007, but Volpe has made clear that once its new music director Andris Nelsons arrives, the orchestra will significantly step up its touring ambitions. Plans are already afoot for a trip to Europe in 2015.
Meanwhile last week, as musicians rehearsed and performed their final programs of the season, a different symphony of logistics was playing out in the basement lair beneath the stage. John Demick, the BSO’s stage manager, strode past row upon row of enormous instrument shipping cases, ready to receive harps, double basses, cellos, and a lot more.
Also arrayed in neat formation were dozens of massive brown wardrobe cases, each standing battered but proud at more than 6 feet tall. They are about 75 years old, and with their drawers and silver-colored trim, they suggest a bygone era of travel elegance.
“I always tell people that these cases washed ashore when the Titanic went down,” Demick says. “I’m trying to get new ones with this amazing modern invention,” he added, lowering his voice as if about to disclose a coveted trade secret. “Wheels.”
In total the BSO will ship 23,000 pounds of equipment valued at some $14 million. And in case the mere feat of sending a party of 197 people to Asia were not enough, the BSO was also thrown a curveball a few weeks ago, as the federal government announced new rules banning the importing of ivory, even in small quantities.
String players panicked about whether they would be able to reenter the United States with their bows, many of which contain small pieces of ivory, and orchestra executives had to scramble, meeting with advocacy groups and congressional staff, eventually getting a letter of support from Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey as well as Representative Michael Capuano.
Just in case, each bow traveling to Asia has been photographed and has its own paperwork.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.