Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2016, 1:08 AM
The Philadelphia Orchestra has seen many firsts, but few could have imagined this one. In June 2017, the well-traveled ensemble will touch down at Genghis Khan International Airport in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar for concerts that may well be attended by nomads on horseback.
"Or in Jaguars and Cadillacs," said Bulgaa Altangerel, the Mongolian ambassador to the United States.
Such is 21st-century Mongolia, whose urban population constitutes one of the fastest-growing Asian economies. Mongolian officials have been eying the Philadelphia Orchestra's residencies in China - which include concerts as well as street-level interaction with the public - and want a residency for their own country.
A memorandum of understanding with the government of Mongolia was scheduled to be announced today at the Capitol in Washington. The agreement also enhances diplomatic relations that have existed with now-democratic Mongolia for more 30 years.
Altangerel echoed what Chinese officials have often said of China: Mongolia wants the best, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has that kind of international brand.
"This is a great opportunity for us," said Altangerel. "It's a big event for classical music ties with the U.S., but also a big promotion in relation to other fields."
The June 5-9 visit - part of a larger Asian tour - will include one traditional concert but also a range of outreach activities, including a side-by-side concert with local musicians.
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct. He reportedly has a special interest in Mongolia. Perhaps no country the Philadelphia Orchestra has visited has had one foot so firmly planted in ancient times. Roughly 30 percent of the people are still nomadic herders. Children are traditionally on horseback by the age of 3. But this nation of three million people also has four million cellphones.
Such contrasts are highlighted by the Washington event on Thursday, which will include a performance on horse-head fiddle (a stringed instrument with a carved horse on its neck) as well as one by home-grown opera singer Saran Erdenebat.
Western classical music isn't foreign - Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar took the top prize at last year's Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. The Mongolian State Philharmonic Orchestra has been in existence since 1957. It is extremely unusual, however, for foreign ensembles to visit Mongolia; one of Philadelphia's calibre is possibly unprecedented.
Having visited Ulaanbaatar recently, Craig Hamilton, the orchestra's vice president of global initiatives, described the city as charming but also full of cranes for under-construction luxury hotels. None of the city's venues are what Westerners would call a traditional concert hall. "We have yet to determine," he said, "what theater we will actually perform in."
Such spadework can be challenging. The orchestra's 2014 visit to Changsha in China took place amid circumstances in which music-making was barely possible.
"The government of Mongolia is incredibly enthusiastic about this and is willing to do whatever will ensure its success," said Ryan Fleur, the orchestra's vice president of advancement. "But, as you know, we travel with six-and-a-half tons of stuff . . . and not every day do they get that kind of cargo related to a single event."
"It's very different from anything we've done," said Hamilton, who began talks with Mongolian officials last spring around the orchestra's concert at the Kennedy Center. "They have a very clear idea as to how they want to be represented to the rest of the world."
And the exchange isn't one-way.
"We'll be working with Mongolian throat-singers and dancers," Hamilton said. "This is what we look for in a partner." Another potential point of exchange: cashmere wool, which is quite inexpensive in Mongolia.
Read full story: Philadelphia Orchestra to visit Mongolia, first step to a residency