Fifty years after the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic visit to China in 1973, which helped establish the then-fledgling U.S.-China relationship, Davyd Booth is hoping for a repeat performance.
The 73-year-old violinist returned to China this week with 13 orchestra colleagues to mark the 50th anniversary of the trip and continue the ensemble’s decades-long effort to bring the United States and China closer despite current political disagreements.
“People all over the world are absolutely the same,” Booth said Thursday in Beijing, on the eve of her performance with the China National Symphony Orchestra at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
The return of the orchestra itself is a sign of improving relations ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.
There may be differences in governments and religions, but people’s reaction to music is the same, Booth said after playing the piano in a hospital with a violinist and a cellist from the orchestra.
“Music touches the hearts of everyone, no matter where they are in the world or where they grew up,” he said.
The orchestra’s journey comes at a difficult time, as the world’s two largest economies battle over trade, technology, defense and human rights. Both sides hope the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco next week will bring some stability to relations, although no major breakthroughs are expected.
Booth noted that many Chinese play for the Philadelphia Orchestra and that some of the world’s best soloists are Chinese.
“We are so important to each other. I mean, half of the things we use in our lives are made in China,” he said. “Our lives are… intimately connected, perhaps even more so than governments would like to admit.”
After Friday’s 50th anniversary concert in Beijing, the musicians will later perform at the Tianjin Julliard School and give chamber concerts in Shanghai and the nearby historic city of Suzhou. They will also offer master classes during their stay.
Booth recalls the trip he took as a 23-year-old violinist when then-music director Eugene Ormandy took the Philadelphia Orchestra to China at the request of President Richard Nixon, who made his own historic visit to the country a year earlier.
For Booth, his first trip abroad was a feast for the eyes. Everyone had the same hairstyle and wore the same jackets, and he found it difficult to distinguish women from men. Looking back, he is glad to have been able to take a look at China before the country embarked on its rapid modernization course.
“Beijing was an agricultural country,” he said. “I remember seeing fields where farmers were working.” They had wooden carts and wooden wheels. … It was just an incredible sight.”
Booth returned 20 years later, in 1993, on the orchestra’s next trip to a changed China – people no longer wore the same jackets. As he watched from the window of his hotel room, he marveled at the speed with which a building shot up, adding a new floor each day.
Since then, the entire orchestra has made ten more trips to China and plans to return next year.
“Over the past 50 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made 12 visits to China, insisting on fulfilling its promise of using music as a bridge to promote people-to-people and cultural exchanges,” said Yang Wanming, president of the Chinese People’s Association Friendship with foreign countries.
He spoke at a reception for orchestra members at a government guesthouse on Thursday.
Booth, who became the orchestra’s harpsichordist in 1998, was there on every trip. He recalled the years when smog turned the sky a muddy yellow, a byproduct of China’s rapid industrial growth, and said the air has become much cleaner today.
When Chinese people ask him about America, Booth says he tells them that people back home share some of the same experiences and desires. A few decades before China, American cities also struggled with smog.
“As the economy and people are more successful, making more money, they want the same things…make more money to buy more cars so the streets are busier,” he said. “We have that in the United States.”
“I keep coming back to it, but I think it’s a very important thing,” he said.
Caroline Chen, Associated Press video producer in Beijing, contributed to this report.