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It took a ping-pong team and a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven to smash through the doors that separated China and the US in the early 1970s. Almost 50 years later, Beethoven in Beijing, a new book by veteran Inquirer reporter Jennifer Lin, captures the trepidation, intrigue, and euphoria of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s good-will trip to China in 1973.
After China invited the US men’s and women’s ping-pong teams to play against the Chinese, it occurred to Eugene Ormandy, then director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, that a visit from Western musicians might build on those fledgling ties. President Richard Nixon, who had already visited China with his entourage, thought it was a great idea. Soon the Philadelphia Orchestra was embarking on a nine-day tour of China, releasing waves of understanding and cultural exchange that, despite political differences, continue to reverberate today.
Screen to page
To capture the moment leading up to the 50th anniversary of the world-changing event, Lin created and co-directed a feature-length documentary. Beethoven in Beijing aired on PBS’s Great Performances (here’s the BSR review).
But a documentary, no matter how comprehensive, can only cover so much. To complement the video and fill in the gaps, Lin follows up with an in-depth companion book, vividly retelling the story set in the early 1970s when American involvement in Vietnam was at its peak and protests rocked the country. It was a world without personal computers, a world-wide Internet, and social media. Many communist countries were inaccessible to travelers from the West, and China, the largest of these, posed the greatest mystery of all.
The gates of access did not open quickly or easily for either the Chinese hosts or their Western visitors. For one thing, Ormandy and the orchestra musicians had little idea just how unfamiliar their Asian audiences were with the Western classical tradition. Only a few years earlier, cultural-revolution zealots demolished artifacts of Western culture and outlawed the performance of Western music. Iconoclasts burned sheet music, instruments, and recordings. Artists were persecuted, even killed, their innovative works replaced by cheesy communist propaganda. Yet during their visit, the Philadelphia delegation met the leaders behind the purges and persecutions, including the notorious Madame Mao herself, who shows up frequently in this book chatting gayly with her American visitors, praising the very composers her party had attempted to render obsolete.
All was not sunshine and roses for the American retinue as they brought the sound of Western music to the People’s Republic. The ensemble’s performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastorale,” which celebrates nature, was met with thunderous applause in Beijing. Yet, not long after, Chinese news media were publishing editorials denouncing Beethoven as the epitome of decadent capitalism. In subsequent visits by the orchestra, as recent as 2014, this opinion reversed yet again. Under current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, author of the book’s forward, the orchestra and its choice of music were welcomed enthusiastically during the latest visit, as the Philadelphians in turn learned some fine points of contemporary Chinese music at the Central Conservatory.
A coffee-table book to read
Beethoven in Beijing is well organized, equipped with a comprehensive index and bibliography that will please scholars without taxing lay readers. The book could have been improved with the addition of a map and a chronology at the beginning or end, of the sort found in many biographies. This would provide a sense of context and continuity, offering a concise overview of the trip, day by day, which could be referred to while reading a chapter or section.
Published by Temple University Press, Beethoven in Beijing is a hardcover, coffee-table book that people actually can and will want to read for its vivid text and startling revelations. It memorializes a time when music enabled two estranged cultures to break down barriers of misinformation and communicate with smiles of understanding.
What, When, Where
Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China. By Jennifer Lin. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, May 24, 2022. 192 pages, hardcover; $35. Get it from Temple University Press.
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