Boston symphony on tour

Updated: 2014-02-24 10:45

By Jack Freifeider in New York (China Daily USA)

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A lot has sure changed since 1979.

Tie-dye and bell-bottoms are largely a novelty now, but they were all the rage when the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) last played a concert in China 35 years ago.

Even the iconic Zhongshan suits that dotted the streets in China several decades ago have taken a backseat to more contemporary fashion.

But the BSO's Larry Wolf remembers the fad's heyday well. "I was 31 on the first trip to China," Wolf told China Daily. "I tried to be a tourist and it was all extremely interesting. I remember the streets, a sea of bicycles and the blue Mao jackets that were just everywhere."

"Being an American I was just an object of a positive, childlike curiosity," added Wolf, an assistant principal double bass player with the BSO. "People wondered if I stubbed my toe in New York whether I would feel the same pain they did with a stubbed toe in Beijing. The answer is, of course, yes."

The BSO is set to tour China and Japan later this year with a series of seven concerts over a 10-day period from May 1-11, the first trip the BSO has made to China since its historic tour in 1979 under the direction of Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.

At the end of the BSO's 2013-14 season, Maestro Lorin Maazel - who first debuted with the BSO in December 1960 - will lead the orchestra during this year's trip to China and Japan, which will feature concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tokyo.

On Jan 1, 1979, following the signing of the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, official diplomatic relations between the US and China were established.

Shortly thereafter, the BSO became the first US orchestra to visit China.

Boston's main orchestral body plays at historic Symphony Hall and the company is currently in its 133rd season of performances.

Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO, said, "there's a real interest in China and Japan" because the level of music making there is "incredibly high".

"I've never been to China with the orchestra, so this will be a first for me," Volpe said. "China is this incredibly interesting place that has opened up. You couldn't talk this way 35 years ago."

Volpe has combined his formal training as a musician with a legal background, which has helped him serve as the chief executive of Boston's premier orchestral company.

For some of the musicians this trip will be particularly exciting because "they get to see family", Volpe said.

Jessica Zhou, a Beijing-born principal harpist with the BSO, said she was aware of the 1979 BSO trip because of an exchange program her mother participated in at the China National Symphony Orchestra.

"I knew that musically it was a big deal at the time, but I'm just surprised the BSO has not been back in so many years," Zhou said.

Zhou, who started studying the harp in Beijing at nine years old, comes from a family with a long line of musicians. Zhou's father was a flutist, and she and her mother shared the same harp teacher at the conservatory in Beijing where Zhou trained as a young girl.

"I came here at 13, but I go back quite often and it's definitely not the same China from 1979," Zhou said. "Any Western orchestra that comes through draws a lot of attention."

Anthony Fogg, the artistic administrator for the BSO, said finding the right balance for the program in this concert series was a key component of the planning process.

"It's in everyone's interest to get that program right," Fogg said. "I've never been to China so to a large extent I had to rely on the recommendations of those who have much more experience about the audience's expectations."

"The whole ritual of performance in China is something that's completely new to me," Fogg added. "I'm really looking forward to seeing the reaction from the Chinese audiences ."

Volpe said he is hopeful the 2014 trip to China and Japan will be a watershed moment for the BSO's touring schedule going forward. "Thirty-five years was inadvertent, but as China continues to grow I think it will be on the regular touring schedule," Volpe said.

 Boston symphony on tour

Maestro Lorin Maazel (standing) leads a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, on Aug 2, 2012. Maazel will lead the company on a 10-day trip to China and Japan in May. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 02/24/2014 page2)