As leaders meet, Philadelphia Orchestra musicians tour China | ET REALITY


President Biden and China’s leader Xi Jinping face a host of thorny geopolitical issues when they meet Wednesday in San Francisco: trade, Taiwan and the war between Israel and Hamas.

But they have found some common ground in the cultural sphere. In recent days, both leaders have praised the visit of a delegation of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra to China.

The musicians arrived there last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the orchestra’s visit to Beijing in 1973, when it became the first american set perform in communist-led China as the two countries worked to reestablish official ties.

Now, with the relationship between the United States and China at its lowest point in four decades, its leaders have highlighted the role of music in easing tensions.

Biden said in a recent letter to the orchestra that his visit this month could help “forge even closer cultural bonds, forever symbolizing the power of connection and collaboration.”

Xi, in a letter released Friday, said the Philadelphia Orchestra had long played a role in strengthening the connection between the two countries and described his 1973 visit as an “ice-breaking trip.”

“Music has the power to transcend borders,” he wrote, “and culture can build bridges between hearts.”

Daniel R. RussellA former senior U.S. diplomat now working at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said cultural exchange could build connections between China and the United States and help “rebut political caricatures” that citizens of each country may have.

But there are limits, he said, given the heated rhetoric and increasingly intense rivalry between Beijing and Washington over economic and national security issues.

“It’s a very thin thread to weave such a big cut in the relationship,” he said.

On Friday, a dozen musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra joined their counterparts from the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra for a concert at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. The program included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture and Chinese folk songs.

“It was an incredibly impactful moment,” said Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the orchestra. “It had the effect of focusing attention on arts and culture and on the beauty and power of music to effect change.”

The visit by the Philadelphia musicians, who will also travel to Shanghai, Suzhou and Tianjin, has received wide attention in China. Many media outlets have published nostalgic stories in recent days about the 1973 visit, during which the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, performed to a packed house in Beijing, a year after the historic visit of the President Richard M. Nixon.

At the time, China was in the final years of the Cultural Revolution, during which most traditional music, including Western classical music, was banned. Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, ensured that the concert, which included one of his favorite works, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (known as the “Pastoral”), was broadcast nationwide.

The orchestra has been featured all over Chinese state media in recent days. An article appeared on Saturday about Mr. Xi’s letter to the orchestra. front page from the People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, just after the announcement that Xi would meet with Biden in San Francisco. China Central Television, the state broadcaster, ventilated interviews showing Philadelphia Orchestra staff members and musicians praising Mr. Xi’s letter.

The focus on the orchestra’s visit reflects the Chinese government’s recent efforts to shore up its global image by emphasizing more personal ties, said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, an independent research program based in the United States.

“Emphasizing people-to-people exchanges is a way to highlight the positive aspects from the point of view of China’s leadership,” he said. “They also harken back to an earlier time when ping-pong was enough to get both sides back to the table.”

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