Philadelphia Orchestra president: Israel tour fosters cultural diplomacy, despite controversy | Perspective

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra acknowledge the applause of the audience after a concert at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts during the 2016 Tour of Asia. .

Why does the Philadelphia Orchestra travel? Simply put, we leave our city’s borders because there’s something uniquely powerful about the music we make. As poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

Our first trip, four days after our inaugural concert in 1900, was to Reading. Soon afterward, we began regular performances in Carnegie Hall, and then visits to numerous cities throughout the U.S., and later Canada.

After World War II, we became the first American orchestra to travel to Europe. Soon we began a series of tours and concerts that became key moments in cultural diplomacy, where we were able to use the enriching power of our music to bridge peoples and cultures after diplomatic dialogue had failed. From Russia to Japan, and most famously in China, the Philadelphia Orchestra has demonstrated a unique ability to communicate with its inspiring music.

Last year’s tour of Asia is a case in point. Over three weeks, from Shanghai to Seoul to Mongolia, not only did the orchestra perform some of the gems of the Western classical repertoire; it also gave the world premiere of a new work by Chinese composer Da Jie, performed side-by-side with local orchestras, and presented chamber concerts and master classes across the region.

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Our coming visit to Israel — part of a larger tour that also spans six European cities — continues in that vein, with major concerts, of course, as well as master classes for students, chamber performances for Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, and a side-by-side concert with Israeli musicians.

Only three major American orchestras have been to Israel since its founding. This tour is an important moment for its people. It is also an important moment for many Philadelphians, including the city’s large Jewish community, which has invested meaningfully in Israel’s success. They are excited to see us go there and communicate through music.

This visit came at the invitation of the private sector in Israel and is supported by the private sector in Philadelphia. The U.S. State Department, with which the orchestra works closely, has told us our appearances help bring people together on the path to a long-term peace process. That kind of cultural diplomacy is an integral part of our mission; it’s about using music to communicate, where other dialogue cannot.

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Of course, using music to build bridges requires performing in front of diverse audiences. On our Israel tour, Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Muslims will be in the audiences we play for, and among the leaders with whom we meet. It is our hope that the act of gathering to enjoy music-making will be a restorative experience, and that the music we play will help the audience to experience harmony in its deepest sense, and to imagine and hopefully to build a brighter tomorrow.

In the end, our concerts and residency activities on this visit to Israel are simply about the Philadelphia Orchestra bringing its magnificent artistry at the highest level to a culture and a community that loves classical music. In doing so, we hope to help heal by sharing our musical gifts with a part of the world that has known too much conflict.

Ryan Fleur is interim co-president of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association.