Cultural diplomacy is a significant activity for symphony orchestras. The Boston Symphony Orchestra toured Russia in 1956. The Philadelphia Orchestra went to China in 1973. The New York Philharmonic played Pyongyang in 2008; the Minnesota Orchestra went to Cuba this past May. And on Friday night, the music of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony was heard in Tehran, performed from the original music the New York Philharmonic has guarded since the work’s 1893 premiere.
This orchestra, though, wasn’t American. It was the China Philharmonic.
“The New York Philharmonic gave me the original parts,” said China Philharmonic music director Long Yu, speaking by cellphone from an airport en route to Greece the day after a concert he described as historic. “So it’s very touching if you see the music, you’re touching that history.”
The China Philharmonic, created in 2000 from what had formerly been the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, and still technically the state radio orchestra, is wrapping up a six-stop Silk Road tour with Long Yu. Unlike Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing Silk Road Project, which since 1998 has celebrated the Silk Road’s melange of cultures and history of exchange through chamber music and educational programs, the China Philharmonic’s tour takes a traditional approach to cultural diplomacy. The orchestra is playing Chinese and Western repertory and effectively showcasing its strengths to China’s not-so-distant geographical neighbors.
It also showcases Long Yu, a superpower of China’s burgeoning music world who also leads the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Beijing Music Festival, and the Shanghai Orchestra Academy, in a role he would dearly like to assume: that of cultural diplomat.
Speaking the day after the concert, which was met with the requisite standing ovation, two encores and seven curtain calls (not an unprecedented number on international tours), he embraced the time-honored rhetoric trotted out on such occasions of “the universal language of music” and the joys of bringing the treasures of the West to a new audience.
“You can see how the people are looking for life, and the passion for life,” he said, waxing eloquent on the beauties of Tehran.
The West tends to think of China as a recipient of its cultural diplomacy, not as its purveyor. And yet at a time when some Iranians are chanting “Death to America” in the streets, it’s a Chinese orchestra, rather than an American one, that brought this American-flavored music, with the imprimatur of its American parts and what Long Yu describes as “liberal ideas,” to Iran.
The Pittsburgh Symphony, which last played in Tehran in 1964 as part of a tour sponsored by the State Department, voiced hopes last year of playing there again; and it’s been rumored that Daniel Barenboim may lead the Berlin Staatskapelle there during Angela Merkel’s state visit in October. But China has beaten them to the punch — with a work that symbolizes the appropriation of traditional forms by a “new world.”
On Friday, there were a couple of “new worlds” at play. China is planting a flag to show itself as a player in the international cultural community. But Tehran was also spreading its wings as a city that wants such culture. The performance, in fact, was shared between the China Philharmonic and the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1933, defunct for several years, and revived this past April with what by one account was a struggling but eager performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.
On Friday, led by Ali Rahbari (who has had a distinguished career in the West, and has come under fire in Iran in the past for “promoting Western values”), the ensemble played Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” — a snapshot of the East through Western eyes.