The Boston Symphony is batting .500 historically on its tours to China. That would be a great average for the Red Sox, but cancelling concerts, for whatever reasons, are major disappointments for an orchestra with an otherwise stellar record of achievement.
Ironically, the first tour to China, in 1979, was the one that was the most hastily planned. The opportunity arose quite suddenly out of the rapprochement between the US and China after the demise of Mao Tse Tung. The BSO was the first foreign to perform in China after the Great Cultural Revolution, and ushered in an era of improved relations between the two countries. Though travel to China today is ho hum (excluding the current shutdown over the coronavirus) the 1979 tour was an event of international cultural and political import. To give you an idea of the sea change in the world since then, when the BSO arrived in Beijing, it had flown on the first 747 plane ever to touch down on Chinese soil.
A second tour to China was to occur 1999 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1979 tour was a done deal. That is, until American forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, killing several people. The Chinese government, not surprisingly, did not take a kindly view to the attack. At the State Department’s urging, the concert tour was aborted at the last minute.
A third tour to China, in 2014, turned out to be a great success, but it too was almost cancelled. Maestro Lorin Maazel, the conductor engaged to lead the orchestra on the tour, had been ill for months. Though he was determined to persevere, his doctors finally ordered him to stay in bed. (Sadly, he died just a few months later.) An orchestra can’t perform without a conductor (or so conductors say), but without someone of Maazel’s international stature, concert presenters were reluctant. Literally, with only days before a decision to cancel would have to have been made, the BSO was able to engage the services of Maestro Charles Dutoit. The tour was saved. It is unfortunate that a couple years later, a dark shadow was cast over what was perhaps his greatest moment of glory when serious allegations of sexual misconduct were leveled against him.
And now, here we are in 2020, and yet another tour to China has gone by the boards. Until a few weeks ago, the serious concern was about the demonstrations in Hong Kong, one of the orchestra’s destinations. Would the musicians be safe? What kind of security was being provided? Would demonstrations at the airports disrupt our travel? As recently as one week ago, the musicians received a security briefing from the firm that was to accompany us. Hardly a word was mentioned about health concerns. How quickly things change.
So the two-week tour that would have taken the orchestra to Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai has been cancelled. I have not doubt there are already efforts underway to reschedule the tour in a year or two years. One can’t even imagine what Perils of Peking the orchestra might have to confront in the future. In the meantime, they’ll just keep playing.
To read about all the BSO’s adventures in China on the tours that did take place, you’ll enjoy Symphonies & Scorpions: An International Concert Tour as an Instrument of Citizen Diplomacy.
An excerpt from the book, “War & Peace. And Music,”was the subject for my TED performance.