The Philadelphia Orchestra has long been an important cultural ambassador for the United States, first visiting China during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in 1973. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of its historic first trip to China this year, the Orchestra is embarking on a residency and a commemorative tour. Having already visited Hangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing, the program culminates this weekend with two performances in Macau, at the Venetian Theatre. MDT spoke to Hai-ye Ni, the Orchestra’s principal cellist about her personal connection to the ensemble and her experiences of the tour so far.
MDT – The Philadelphia Orchestra recently announced details of its Residency in China and a commemorative Fortieth Anniversary tour of the country. Can you tell me a little more about it and your role in it?
Hai-ye Ni – We were the first American orchestra to visit China in 1973 and so this is our 40th anniversary tour. There’s still 7 current members in our Orchestra who were, 40 years ago, in the (original) Orchestra that came to China. And so their experience of China at that time was completely different than now. In 1973 I was a little girl and so my mom actually played in an orchestra that performed – she was a cellist – and she performed in a performance for the Orchestra. I actually heard about this after I joined; I had no idea when I auditioned. So I feel extra proud and extra special that I was able to be in the Orchestra now to come back to China to visit.
MDT – How does your own personal history interact with the orchestra’s goal of pursuing deeper cultural engagement within China?
HYN – Because of my special relationship, I was born in Shanghai, went to the States to study, I feel like I belong to two countries. Of course now that I’ve spent more time in the States as each year goes by that I feel I’m very happy to represent the Orchestra in China … Actually the orchestra is already itself a cultural ambassador to the world. There are not only Chinese musicians, but members from Taiwan, Korea, from Japan, Puerto Rico, America. Kind of a United Nations!
MDT – During the Residency, people-to-people exchanges are set to occur between members of the Orchestra and Chinese musicians. How will you be supporting in this grassroots cultural engagement?
HYN – This morning – we are in Tianjin right now – we participated in a cello trio that we performed at a middle school. So we played a piece there, and we also performed for a local residential area that was outdoors and was part of a pop-up performance. So it was our way of reaching out to the general public and making communication with them. It’s our way of saying that great music is not just for the concert hall, for a few people, but for everybody – that has access and a right to enjoy. And we also had two other performances where the Chinese musicians sit side by side – it’s actually called “Side by Side” – with a few members of the Orchestra, and they play a few pieces together. One of them is a very famous Chinese piece called “Er Quan Ying Yue”, or “Moon Reflection in Two Waterfalls” – it’s a very famous erhu (Chinese violin) melody, and so someone transcribed it for the Western orchestra and we played it together with the Chinese musicians.
MDT – The Residency tour takes in seven concerts in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, and Macau. How do you feel about playing back in your hometown, and what do you expect from Macau?
HYN – I was very excited to be back in Shanghai for obvious reasons, and just to see the change that has happened – not just to Shanghai, but of course in Tianjin and Beijing. There are so many skyscrapers and modernity everywhere, and people in the hotels (we’re being very well treated) they all speak English. I feel very much at home here and everyone is very friendly to us. I feel very comfortable. I think that the difference between China then and now and the USA and other Western countries, the gap is becoming smaller and smaller. And I feel I’m very excited to come to perform for people in Macau. I’ve actually been once before, but just very briefly 10 years ago. So I’m really excited to come again and perform for people there and explore the city.
MDT – What do you expect from the Macau audience?
HYN – I hear that the audience is very eagerly waiting for us to come, so I’m really looking forward to performing – we’re giving two concerts. I also hope we get to talk to some of the musicians there as well in the Macau Symphony.
MDT – How do you think music can promote greater cultural understanding?
HYN – It’s a very profound question. I think that because music doesn’t require language, one doesn’t have to speak Chinese or English, German or French to be able to understand it, it crosses cultural boundaries. And everybody has music, whether it’s playing different drums either in Africa, in South America, and every country has some string instrument. Western cultures have cello, violin and viola, and Chinese culture has the erhu; we all have very similar types of instruments that through music we express ourselves. And music is culture; it will always be part of our lives. Through music and exchange in music – like what we are doing here with the Chinese musicians – that we can hopefully understand each other better.