After Nixon, Ormandy went to China

Ormandy China Great Wall

Penn Libraries

Gretel Ormandy (far left), Eugene Ormandy (third from left), and Wanton Balis, chairman of the Orchestra Board (far right), visiting the Great Wall of China in September of 1973.

“Ormandy in China: The Historic 1973 Tour,” an exhibit in the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library on the fourth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s landmark series of concerts in Beijing and Shanghai.

The Orchestra’s 10-day tour came one year after President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China to meet with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

As the United States reestablished diplomatic and cultural relations with China, the Philadelphia Orchestra, with famed conductor Eugene Ormandy, became the first U.S. symphony orchestra to visit the country. Ormandy served as the Orchestra’s music director for 42 years.

Photos, newspaper articles, documents about the visit, and an audio recording are included in the interactive, multimedia exhibition, which runs through late 2014.

Richard Griscom, head of the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library and the Eugene Ormandy Music and Media Center of the Penn Libraries, curated the show, which was designed by Andrea Gottschalk, exhibition designer and coordinator in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Visitors can peruse eight display cases of materials assembled from the Penn Libraries' Eugene Ormandy collection, including some rarely seen memorabilia.

“You see the score to the ‘Yellow River Concerto’ with Ormandy’s hand-written markings and his notes about unfamiliar Chinese instruments used in the work,” Griscom says.

Griscom says he pored over documents from “dozens and dozens” of boxes in the Ormandy collection to research behind-the-scenes stories about the Orchestra’s China tour.

Ormandy China

Penn Libraries

Ormandy conducting the Chinese orchestra in a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Beijing, September 1973.

Visitors will learn that the Orchestra did not originally plan to perform Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on the tour. When Madame Mao, wife of the chairman, announced that she would attend one of the concerts and requested that the symphony be performed, the maestro added it as a last-minute program change.

A photo of Madame Mao addressing the Orchestra after the performance is featured in the exhibit, as well as a roster of everyone on the tour, including not only Orchestra musicians, but also diplomats, visiting dignitaries, and journalists.

Griscom says former Orchestra members who have visited the show have expressed their surprise to see photos of Ormandy at the Great Wall of China and in the Forbidden City. He says Ormandy rarely left the hotel to sightsee when touring, preferring to remain at his hotel studying scores.  

Ormandy’s wife once remarked, “I’ve been all over the world. I haven’t seen a thing. I spent all these tours in a hotel room with Gene.”

Originally published on December 5, 2013