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Sepia-tinged notes from the visit of '73

By Chen Jie  (China Daily)

09:59, June 05, 2012

Time flies and old friends pass away.

The Philadelphia Orchestra returned to China in 1993, 1996, 2001, 2005, 2008 and 2010. Each time, there were less old members of that historic trip in 1973, as the first US orchestra to visit China. In 2008, nine returned, this time, just seven.

"My father told me a lot about the 1973 trip when we performed together in Beijing, in 1993," 57-year-old bassoon player Mark Gigliotti says outside the National Center for the Performing Arts. "He said it was very different. People wore blue or green and seldom saw foreigners in streets."

His father was Anthony Gigliotti, the principal clarinetist. Mark joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1982, and the pair was together with the orchestra till 1996.

"He bought reeds from China and gave me a bocal, which I still use now," Mark says.

The violinist Reward Edwards, 69, recalls: "We were asked to go out in a three-person-group, not more and not alone, but of course we went out as we liked. We played frisbee in the streets and many people gathered around us."

In 1971, Philadelphia Orchestra's music director Eugene Ormandy wrote a letter to former US president Richard Nixon, proposing a tour to China.

The next year, Nixon and his US national security advisor Henry Kissinger visited China, paving the way for a two-week trip to Beijing and Shanghai.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was a natural choice for Nixon, who had been honored at the orchestra's anniversary concert a year before. Ormandy was considered suitable, too, because he had conducted a China Relief concert in Australia.

At that time, there were no direct flights from the US to China. The orchestra spent a night in Honolulu and flew to Tokyo and finally arrived in Beijing.

In addition to their four concerts in Beijing, the orchestra visited the Great Wall, the Ming tombs, the Summer Palace and Forbidden City. They also watched The White Haired Girl ballet.

The orchestra visited the Central Philharmonic Society (now National Symphony of China) and watched them rehearsing Moon Reflected on The Second Spring, under the baton of Li Delun.

Ormandy loved the piece so much that he asked for the score, but for political reasons, Li had to politely decline.

Li also conducted the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No 5 and then asked Ormandy to take the baton to continue the second movement.

Most of the Chinese musicians had been working in the fields since the "cultural revolution" began in 1966 and the instruments were chipped and glued together. But Ormandy was still impressed by the performance.

Violinist Booker Rowe, 71, recalls the Chinese orchestra had torn, hand-copied scores. He also remembers that Ormandy was not happy when Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife, requested the orchestra play Beethoven's Symphony No 6.

"They couldn't find a score in Beijing but finally found one in Shanghai and sent it to Beijing at the last minute. The score had been marked up by Chinese conductors, and there were many mistakes. But Ormandy was such a great conductor, we finally made it," he recalls.

Rowe was also impressed by the audiences, who listened carefully, and clapped politely, but showed emotion in their eyes.

For the third concert, Jiang Qing did not like Respighi's The Pines of Rome and initially refused to meet the musicians.

Rowe says the orchestra was ready to leave on the bus when the driver was told to stop and everyone went back on stage.

It turned out that Jiang had changed her mind, shook hands with the musicians and presented them with flowers.

The musicians from both countries exchanged gifts and it was the start of a long-lasting friendship. The orchestra gave scores and received Chinese instruments.

Violinist Leonard Mogill sent scores to Chinese friends for years after the tour and musicians like Anthony Gigliotti kept buying instruments from China.

The 76-year-old violinist Herbert Light has returned with the orchestra on all six visits and his wife now teaches piano at Tianjin Conservatory of Music.

"What amazes me most is the dramatic changes. Every time I return, the city looks different. In 1973, we were impressed by the bicycles, now cars are everywhere. New buildings stand out everywhere. I could not even recognize the Cultural Palace of Nationalities we played at in 1973 when we returned to play at the same venue in 2008."

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