National Symphony's Trip to Asia Enhances Prestige, Requires Planning

The NSO will mark the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations with two concerts in Beijing, part of its 10-day Asian tour.
The NSO will mark the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations with two concerts in Beijing, part of its 10-day Asian tour. (By Ricky Wong)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

The instruments went first. The National Symphony Orchestra loaded 103 pieces of baggage -- from chair racks to black, wheeled trunks stenciled with labels like "French Horns" -- into two 18-wheelers last Thursday and sent them off to New York. It was the first leg of their trip to China and South Korea for the orchestra's 10-day, six-concert tour that includes performances in Macao, Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Seoul and Goyang. Principal conductor Iván Fischer and the players themselves followed on Saturday with their own luggage.

In sending instruments to China, the NSO is following a precedent set four centuries ago when the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing with a clavichord for the emperor in 1601. These days, however, China returns the gift with a vengeance. The country is by far the world's largest exporter of musical instruments. Between one-fifth and one-third of the violins made in the world each year (figures in China are hard to pin down) come from a single manufacturer near Beijing, the Huadong Musical Instrument Corp.

And it isn't only instruments. Western classical music is big business in China. New concert halls and opera houses are springing up in seemingly every city. Hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in conservatories, and the number of people who study piano is variously cited at 30 million, 40 million, 50 million. (See "hard to pin down" figures, above.) Chinese soloists -- the pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li are prime examples -- are increasingly prominent in international concert halls.

So a Western orchestra is no longer a rare cultural emissary, as it was when the Philadelphia Orchestra, in 1973, became the first American orchestra to play in the country. True, the NSO (whose tour to China and South Korea lasts until June 20) is arriving as an emissary of the United States. It was invited by the Ministry of Culture to play two concerts in Beijing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations.

But as a touring Western orchestra, it's merely taking its place in line. The New York Philharmonic stopped there last year on the Asia tour that included North Korea; the Philadelphians returned last year to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their historic tour; the Chicago Symphony was there in January and February; the Pittsburgh Symphony just got back.

In fact, nearly every orchestra that's touring at all these days appears to be going to China. A touring American orchestra is a rarer phenomenon in the United States than in the Far East.

Tours used to be marquee events through which an orchestra advertised its quality and bolstered sales of its recordings. But in the current climate, recordings are viewed more as advertising than as potential revenue sources, and organizations have little money for touring.

Boston and Dallas have both recently shelved plans for tours in Europe. The Minnesota Orchestra announced that it was canceling its European tour last fall, only to be saved at the eleventh hour by a donation from a locally based corporation: Target. The NSO's China tour, which the orchestra didn't announce until March to allow it time to secure additional funding from Dow Chemical and Amway, is the group's first overseas trip since 2002.

Classical music has effectively become a symbol of economic prosperity in both countries. For American orchestras, a tour signifies a certain level of financial stability. A trip to China, furthermore, is potentially a way to tap into a tremendous new audience.

In China, meanwhile, music has served as a political force for years, explicitly developed as a vehicle for conveying appropriate thoughts to the masses. And while Western music was long disdained (and banned) as representative of cultural elitism, today it is embraced for the same reason. It is seen as a way to get ahead, whether for the companies that buy up tickets to concerts to distribute to their workers and business contacts, for the cities that build shining new opera houses to demonstrate their cosmopolitan modernity, or for the young music students whose proficiency on an instrument will give them a boost on their applications to university.

These days, classical music in China represents a particular kind of prosperity to Western eyes. By most accounts, the Chinese mega-audience for classical music is still a work in progress -- something the NSO musicians will be able to learn more about, at least anecdotally, by comparing the next two weeks with the reception they got on their last China tour in 1999.

But all of the new concert halls already represent a concrete market for high-end Western instruments that manufacturers are eager to capitalize on. While the Huadong Musical Instrument Corp. turns out violins for the West, the venerable, and diminutive, Canadian organ-builders Casavant Frères, one of the most renowned names in the field, is sending half its current output to China. Since an organ is a labor-intensive proposition, this means that it is building all of three organs for China, but according to the Montreal Gazette the contracts represent about $4 million (Canadian).

Touring orchestras have yet to capitalize on the market potential to the same extent. For the time being, they're investing in their future. It's not cheap to move 99 orchestra musicians, staff and all those trunks to Asia and back: The NSO estimates the cost of the tour to be $1.35 million.

Of course, a tour is generally seen to be a good thing for an orchestra, particularly this one, since it enhances the orchestra's international prestige: The NSO's invitation underscores its official status as the National Symphony of the United States of America.

At the moment, Don Tillett, the orchestra's stage manager, is more concerned with the logistics of loading 103 trunks and pieces of equipment on and off countless trucks and vans in China, each with slightly different measurements. And the NSO is cutting costs where it can -- even with the instruments. Neither of the orchestra's two programs on this tour includes a piece with specialized instruments or huge percussion sections, which require additional trunks and room.

"In 2002, we took John Corigliano's 'Mannheim Rocket,' " says Rita Shapiro, the orchestra's executive director. The piece calls for timpani and four percussionists. For this tour, that might be a few instruments too many.

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