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The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to China for anniversary of historic 1973 trip

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The first time an American orchestra visited China, Western classical music was banned.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 'CHORALE'")

SUMMERS: It was 1973, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by conductor Eugene Ormandy, was the first to perform in the People's Republic. It was a move made possible by President Richard Nixon's historic visit the year prior to thaw U.S.-China relations. This week, the orchestra returns to mark the 50th anniversary of that 10-day tour and perhaps to help restore relations that have frayed since then. One musician will also be returning, violinist Davyd Booth. We spoke to him via Zoom from his Beijing hotel, and he recounted that first visit and how different that capital city was 50 years ago.

DAVYD BOOTH: When we landed in Beijing, for one thing, the airport was really quite, quite small, and it was pretty much surrounded by fields. We saw farmers working in the fields with a wooden cart that had wooden wheels, and it was pulled by water buffaloes. That's one of the things that most struck me. And the other thing that I remember is that we actually didn't see very many cars, but we saw literally hundreds of thousands of bicycles, seas of bicycles. And so that is one of the visual memories that remains very vivid for me today.

SUMMERS: What made you want to return to China to be a part of this anniversary tour again a half-century later?

BOOTH: Well, for one thing, it's part of my job. And then it was really exciting coming back. I mean, just the fact - I mean, I'd never dreamed that I'd be here this long. I'm glad that, you know, I've lasted physically and all of this to be able to still continue to work. And it's a great experience, and it's very nostalgic because over the years, I've developed a lot of relationships and keep in touch with a lot of people that I've met through these many Chinese visits. The second visit to China happened about 20 years later, and it was a completely different country. You could not believe how quickly the high development took place. It went from the old-world China, and then in 1992, suddenly, I mean, it had developed into a huge, modern country.

SUMMERS: I understand that on that initial 1973 trip, there was endless haggling on the details, including the music. Do you remember that?

BOOTH: Yes, very well. One of the big issues was programming, and we were planning to play Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

BOOTH: The person who was really in charge at that time was Mrs. Mao, and she did not like the Beethoven "Fifth Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

BOOTH: She wanted the "Sixth Symphony," which is called "The Pastoral Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN F MAJOR, OP. 68")

BOOTH: And it's a very programmatic music, and there are different titles for each of the movements. And she thought that that, first of all, represented some of the struggle with the people and then also the beautiful bits of nature that were described with the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN F MAJOR, OP. 68")

BOOTH: And Ormandy, that was his least favorite Beethoven symphony. I think the reason why is because it ended softly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN F MAJOR, OP. 68")

BOOTH: He always wanted - the big symphonic pieces he most liked were the ones that ended with a huge, huge ending. And then, of course, it caused the audience to burst out in very excited applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

BOOTH: It almost turned into a scandal. He was very adamant that he didn't want to conduct it. And I can remember I was in a room - I happened to be in a room next to him, and I overheard him started screaming. He could sometimes be a very volatile person. He said, I will not conduct that symphony. And there was a lot of diplomatic back and forth. One of them was a person who did a lot of the work getting us here, Nicholas Platt, and he talked to Ormandy and calmed him down and actually got Ormandy to agree to conduct the work.

And then it turned out, you know, we weren't planning to play that piece, so the library had not brought music. So we had to get music, and it turned out that there were no complete sets of the music. We had to combine two sets of music from two different orchestras here in China to be able to do the piece, but we did. And it was a big success, and everybody was happy ever after.

SUMMERS: I mean, David, that is an incredible story. This time around, will you all be performing Beethoven's "Sixth Symphony" and "Fifth Symphony"?

BOOTH: No. Actually, this time around, it's a smaller group where I'm not traveling now with the full orchestra, and they wanted me to come. They really urged me to. They sent me, actually, a couple of telegrams. And I'll never forget at the end that there was a sentence that said, you know how the Chinese revere their elders. So I think I want to get a T-shirt that says revered elder.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) What, then, is on your playlist for these performances?

BOOTH: Well, there's a couple of interesting pieces. One is a movement from a very wonderful, beautiful piece of Johannes Brahms, his "Clarinet Quintet."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANNES BRAHMS' "CLARINET QUINTET IN B MINOR, OP. 115")

BOOTH: And then we have a couple of string quartets, a couple of trios. There's an interesting Francaix trio that uses English horn and a beautiful movement from Mendelssohn's "Piano Trio In D Minor."

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX MENDELSSOHN'S "PIANO TRIO NO. 1 IN D MINOR")

BOOTH: So we have a lot of good music, I think, for these concerts. And then there's also a couple of Chinese pieces that we will be playing.

SUMMERS: Davyd, what are you most looking forward to during this trip and with these performances?

BOOTH: The Chinese audiences are just so receptive. They just so love music, and you can see from their reactions and their facial expressions that it really deeply touches them, goes to their hearts. And this one concert that we're playing for a children's hospital, I mean, to bring music to anybody suffering, particularly young people - I think music is one of the most restorative of the arts, what it can do for your psyche and what it can do for the serenity (inaudible) - I think it helps really greatly people that are suffering.

SUMMERS: I mean, it's not lost on any of us that this trip is coming at a tense time in U.S.-China relations. Davyd, do you think that classical music has something to offer all of us today when it comes to easing those tensions?

BOOTH: Oh, absolutely. We've talked a lot about this. The one thing is that music transcends any kind of politics. I think it transcends any sense of violence in our lives. It can transcend unhappiness. It can bring soothing spirit to any kind of situation like that. And I think it's more and more important that music does that in absolutely all portions of the people.

SUMMERS: That was violinist Davyd Booth of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Thank you so much.

BOOTH: Oh, thank you. It's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tinbete Ermyas
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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