ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — The expansive blue sky is an object of worship in Mongolia, where people flick drops of milk and vodka heavenward as a tribute. Nomads are often retired urban professionals in search of a lower-stress life and the company of livestock. Genghis Khan is everywhere — in statues, on money, in banks — and suspiciously resembles Orson Welles.
Could the Philadelphia Orchestra achieve impact and relevance in a world so far afield from home? The second and final full day of the orchestra’s Ulaanbaatar residency included three concerts with vastly different audiences, inevitably yielding a wait-and-see provisional verdict. Undoubtedly, the visit to Mongolia’s capital was a diplomatic success, with the Philadelphians wined, dined, and lauded by U.S. Ambassador Jennifer Galt and applauded by Walter Douglas, the deputy assistant secretary of state whose territory is East Asia. More practically speaking, the orchestra had to step out of its protective Mozartean bubble and meet the situation more than halfway in several respects.
The usual, well-choreographed tour stop was not in the cards in this third city on the orchestra’s 16-day Asian tour. In a goodwill visit to Philadelphia last year, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj originally envisioned a grand, outdoor concert at Genghis Khan Square. The plan changed radically weeks before the event when the government announced that the full Philadelphia Orchestra couldn’t be afforded because of a national financial crisis. The U.S. State Department stepped in to bring in an 18-member contingent for less formal concerts and master classes. With Elbegdorj leaving office this month with his country in a recession, nobody wants to mention his name in conjunction with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Smart.
But Plan B was barely in place when the musicians arrived late Thursday night. Then, plans changed almost by the hour. Or less. “We’re doing Mozart but dropping Haydn,” announced cellist Yumi Kendall just before Saturday’s children’s concert. Then she learned a Mongolian folk song in minutes.
In the evening when the orchestra walked into Ulaanbaatar’s Philharmonic Hall for its climactic concert Saturday night, one musician scanned the barren stage in the plain, aging auditorium — decorated in what might be called “Mongolian wicker” — and said, “At least there are two music stands.” More materialized, of course, though nobody knew for sure how the concert would unfold, especially since the opening act, so to speak, was schoolchildren performing an interpretive dance to the sassy, sexy overture to the Broadway show Chicago.
The Mongolian State Philharmonic Orchestra showed up at the rehearsal and played, in tribute, Night on Bald Mountain. But those musicians went home. They weren’t participating in the concert. Ultimately, the Philadelphians took the situation in hand, pulling repertoire out of their back pockets, from a Beethoven trio to Steve Reich’s raucous Music for Pieces of Wood. Cellist Kendall volunteered as a stagehand, rearranging chairs and stands between performances in which she was not participating. “You just step up to the plate,” she said.
It’s hard to know how the music was received. The brass quintet drawn from the orchestra offered an encore — Sousa’s Liberty Bell March — though Mongolians preferred snapping their fingers to clapping along. The morning concert for children bused in from the humble Ger District had a constant undercurrent of conversation. But might that be true in many American children’s concerts? At noon, the quintet gave a concert in a public square in the middle of the city and came away with sunburned noses, having been heard only by a handful of people.
But are audiences always measured in numbers? The noon concert was covered by Mongolian television. The evening concert at the small 250-seat Philharmonic Hall was loaded with dignitaries. Seemingly every time you turned around, somebody significant was talking in terms of “when” the Philadelphia Orchestra comes back in its unabbreviated glory, especially from Ulaanbaatar’s mayor/governor, Sundui Batbold. “We will do all that we can to provide all the support that [the Philadelphia Orchestra] needs, but we can’t say exactly when it will happen,” said Jantsannorov Damdintseren, head of the city’s arts and culture department.
The visit can be viewed as a pilot. The point is the total package, not any one event, said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president for orchestra advancement. This Plan B has also spawned a closer relationship with the State Department. “It’s not just Mongolia. There are possibilities beyond that,” he said. Possible example: If relations with Turkey need shoring up, a Philadelphia Orchestra visit could be the focal point. One problem, though, is that the orchestra plans years ahead. Next year’s tour is Europe and Israel. Maybe the year after could include Mongolia. But who will still be in power then?
But the orchestra isn’t exactly scrambling for Asian gigs, since prospects remain good in China with new five-year agreements in Beijing and Shanghai. And Ulaanbaatar isn’t the easiest or most gracious city for visitors to navigate. But even though the 18 Philadelphians were not formally polled, the general feeling toward Mongolia was that of utter fascination, with an urge to return.
The musician who went deepest into the local culture was principal hornist Jennifer Montone, who with her husband, Tim Ressler, and two children made good on their wish to spend a night in an Airbnb Ger (a tentlike structure also known as a “yurt,” often inhabited by nomads). Said to be only a 10-minute cab ride out of town, this ger was an hour away, not on some dirt road, but in an area with no roads at all. They came back starry-eyed, having loved the peace of the place and the atmosphere of kindness, not to mention fresh yak milk.
“The people here are amazing,” said Montone. “And I’m hearing about all of these Mongolian musicians who are graduating from Oberlin College and Yale University and coming back here. The music seems to be flourishing.”
The Philadelphians had just been conducted by Nyamsaikhan Odsuren, a young University of South Carolina student who had been introduced to the players on Friday as a native-Mongolian interpreter. He also brought along his violin to participate in outreach concerts.
Suddenly, Nyamka, as he is called for short, was leading a side-by-side performance with local musicians and the Philadelphia players in an excerpt from the Mongolian ballet Uran Khas by Jamyangiin Chuluun. Musicians said his conducting had the clarity and authority needed to guide them through the unfamiliar music.
The local orchestra was a good semiprofessional group named Itgil Orchestra. It is translated as “hope.”