The Philadelphia Orchestra always expected to expand its pool of unlikely bedfellows in what is becoming its annual spring visit to China. But could anybody have predicted its new relationship with Shanghai's most popular stand-up comedian?
Next to such venerable sponsor names as Cigna and Drexel University for its 2013 Residency and 40th Anniversary Tour of China, which begins Tuesday, sits the logo of the Shanghai Charity Foundation showing a man in a hipster hat and bow tie - Zhou Libo, a dapper, surprisingly outspoken comic who has rock-star status in China.
Zhou just happened to attend a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in Shanghai last year and mentioned his summer home in northern New Jersey. "Then we said, 'You have to come to Saratoga [an orchestra summer venue] when Lang Lang performs,' " recalls Craig Hamilton, the orchestra's vice president of global initiatives.
So Zhou did. And now he and his wife are significant sponsors.
As is Sands China Ltd., owner of at least four huge resorts in the gambling mecca of Macau, including the Venetian, where orchestra musicians played a chamber concert last year and to which they will return June 8, this time full force, near the end of the China sweep.
With more arms than a centipede, the Philadelphia Orchestra now has the most diverse touring schedule in its history, including coaching sessions and joint concerts with local orchestras. In Shanghai, there will be a special National Children's Day performance. In Beijing, musicians will play at the Picun Migrant Worker Village Elementary School. The June 5 concert at the Tianjin Grand Theatre includes a free, big-screen simulcast on the venue's plaza, which can accommodate 10,000 people.
And that's not all. "There's what we know we're going to do, and what we wind up doing," said orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore, referring to the unpredictability of these trips.
The impact of such events can be measured only in retrospect. When the Philadelphians were the first U.S. orchestra to play for the seemingly unsophisticated 1973 Chinese audience during the Mao Tse-tung era, nobody could have predicted that a radio broadcast would be heard by teenager Tan Dun, who became an Academy Award-winning composer ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and is working with orchestra harpist Elizabeth Hainen on a major new work.
"Events of this sort have a cumulative effect. These relationships, they layer - like stalagmites and stalactites," said Nicholas Platt, who as a young diplomat greeted the orchestra when it landed in 1973 and now advises on its China sojourns, of which this is the eighth.
Though 40th anniversaries tend not to be celebrated with such vigor in the United States, landmarks mean a great deal in Asia. Coca-Cola China renewed its 2012 sponsorship in 2013, the anniversary being a significant attraction, according to company vice president Changbo Bai in Shanghai. Does Coca-Cola sponsor other classical events in China? "Honestly? No," he said.
Says one Chinese proverb, "Drinking the water of a well, one should never forget who dug it."
And the well, dug partly by the Philadelphia Orchestra, has become very deep. Some wonder whether the future of Western classical music lies in China. "They have embraced this part of Western culture," said John Kieser, general manager of the San Francisco Symphony, which has long had a strong affinity for Asia. "Have you seen how dedicated these young people are to their instruments? There's a large pool of talent there."
And like the music capitals of Europe, Beijing and Shanghai are now obligatory tour stops. On this visit, the orchestra, led by frequent guest conductor Donald Runnicles, will almost cross paths with its own music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as he tours with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. And while the orchestra is in Hangzhou, opera star Deborah Voigt will be nearby in Shanghai, not singing the Wagner she's known for, but a program of Broadway show tunes based on one she did for the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2011 opening-night gala. "I was thrilled," she said in an e-mail, "that the China Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphony thought that this repertoire would be appealing to their audiences."
Earlier this season, the New York Philharmonic announced an effort philosophically similar to the Philadelphia Orchestra's but more focused - a four-year partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra that includes concert appearances and formation of the Orchestral Academy of Shanghai.
One key difference: In the wake of the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy, its 2013 residency can't just be a goodwill mission. It must pay. Last year's visit, organized without middlemen, showed a small, undisclosed net.
A viable model?
The larger American symphony orchestra industry has been reticent about Philadelphia's China residency model - whether it might be viable for others, or what kind of life span it might have. Overall, there is a sense that any U.S. traction in politically and socially volatile China could dissolve without warning.
Amid last year's Philadelphia Orchestra residency, the New York Times reported that major sponsorship had been retracted in a symptom of cooling U.S.-China relations. The report proved to be misleading: In fact, uncommitted sponsors had failed to commit, which could happen with any country.
This year, Hamilton actually said no to some sponsors who demanded more in return than the orchestra could comfortably supply. More quiet patronage arose from Happy Rockefeller, the widow of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who has a history of philanthropy in China. She recently hosted the latest in a series of luncheons at which orchestra officials made contacts in the upper echelons of Chinese society.
Hamilton believes the orchestra is only scratching the surface of the possibilities in China. For his part, San Francisco's Kieser thinks the key to a sound relationship between the two cultures doesn't lie in Westerners' spreading their glamour. While touring China in 2012, San Francisco's music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, played concerts with musicians on Chinese instruments and tried playing them himself. Chinese poems were set to Appalachian folk tunes.
"I don't mean a meeting of the minds," said Kieser, "but a melding of the minds."