After weeks of uncertainty, it’s now a done deal: The Philadelphia Orchestra will, indeed, touch down June 2 at Mongolia’s Genghis Khan International Airport as part of its Asian tour, which starts Tuesday. But in the midst of that country’s bankruptcy crisis, only about one-fifth of the group — 18 musicians — will take the Mongolian leg of a tour that’s full of promising new beginnings and disappointing might-have-beens.
The anchor of the May 23-June 8 tour of China, Mongolia, and South Korea is still Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, where the orchestra will play a televised Beethoven Symphony No. 9 on May 31 to celebrate the egg-shaped architectural wonder’s 10th anniversary. The Philadelphians are now in their second five-year agreement that promises annual concerts there. In Shanghai, the orchestra will begin two five-year agreements that will make a place for the musicians at the Oriental Art Center and with the media company Shanghai Media Group, which will have the orchestra in a semi-outdoor performing area near Shanghai’s Disneyland.
“We view China as a fertile ground for long-term relationships,” said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president of orchestral advancement. “We’ve got a rhythm going.”
Gone, however, is the annual visit to Macau, where the Venetian hotel and casino had fashioned a viable venue for the orchestra. New regulations on VIP gambling have left the city’s fortunes less vast than in the past. In addition, a planned engagement in Nanjing, a city that is near the oldest parts of the Great Wall of China, has been canceled because construction of the performing arts center isn’t completed. “It’s opening in June,” said Fleur. “We’re just missing it.”
As much as China increasingly looks and acts like Texas, it’s still an exotic business landscape. Negotiations go on after contracts are signed — because contracts can always be rewritten. Proposed concerts go into limbo for six to eight weeks while being reviewed by the Ministry of Culture. A diplomatic slight from Norway several years back is believed to be one reason the Chinese ministry only recently approved the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The people are on the move. In Macau, the Philadelphia Orchestra lost a godfather of sorts when the Venetian’s chief executive, Ed Tracy, a Bucks County native, moved on to running Hard Rock Japan (as in Hard Rock Cafe).
Then there’s the wild card that is Mongolia — and the appearance that almost didn’t happen. In a state visit to Philadelphia last fall, Mongolian president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, a nomad turned Harvard grad, seemed to form a mutual-admiration society with City Hall. The full orchestra was slated to visit the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar as part of this year’s tour. However, a financial crisis soon set in, partly because China’s economic slowdown meant far less Mongolian copper was imported, and the bottom dropped out of the business. Reports from Ulaanbaatar sound dire, with the economic domino effect felt everywhere.
Despite impending austerity measures, the Mongolian government and the U.S. State Department came up with enough money to bring in a smaller Philadelphia Orchestra contingent for a June 2-4 series of concerts and master classes. The country’s democratic government and proximity to Russia and China make Mongolia a valued U.S. ally.
Principal trumpet David Bilger, for one, will visit the National Defense University, where he’ll coach a military band. “Part of it is curiosity,” he said, “and part of it is trying to be a good global citizen.”
The adventurous principal hornist Jennifer Montone is taking her two sons and briefly considered staying in a yurt, the round structures in which many Mongolians live and where some offer tourist lodgings via Airbnb, occasionally surrounded by yaks. “We’ve done some searches on Google Maps … but it’s hard to tell what it’s actually going to feel like,” she said.
Activities in Mongolia are only now coming together. And that’s how life can be there. “They plan three weeks out,” said Fleur, who is used to planning three years out. “Right now. we’re right in their planning sweet spot.”
David Patrick Stearns will meet up with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s emissaries in Mongolia and report May 31 to June 3 from Ulaanbaatar.