Musical diplomacy's perfect harmony

(China Daily)
Updated: 2015-08-05 08:26:28

The China Philharmonic Orchestra will perform in Iran as part of a 14-day tour taking in five countries on the Silk Road. Photo provided to China Daily

The world gets a nuclear accord, and Iran gets an orchestral visit that makes history. Chen Jie reports.

When the first sweet, chirpy notes of the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto flutter over the heads of an audience in Teheran next week they will herald success in a long quest to bring the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra to Iran.

That feat, achieved through laborious efforts over many months, is all the more remarkable given the deafening indifference the orchestra faced in Iran before its diplomatic overtures finally struck a positive note. Its country's top diplomats were, understandably, preoccupied with a matter of much weightier importance: searching for accord with big world powers over the country's nuclear program.

"It was risky," says Wu Jiatong, CEO of Wu Promotions, which has arranged most of the orchestra's international tours over the past 10 years.

"No one knew the result of the nuclear deal and nobody was interested in a concert tour."

The nuclear issue was finally settled three weeks ago when an accord was announced in Vienna and, as if on cue, on Aug 13 an audience in Vahdat Hall in Teheran will be able to hear not only the Butterfly Lover's Concerto, one of China's most famous pieces of modern music, by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, but the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor by Borodin, Symphony No 5 by Tchaikovsky and the overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila by Mikhail Glinka.

The orchestra, which will perform on two consecutive nights, will thus become the first from the country to visit Iran.

The tempo of its diplomatic push to play in the Islamic republic increased several beats early this year when, through the good offices of a former cultural counselor for China in Teheran, the company contacted the Roudaki Foundation, part of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

"That was just the beginning," says the orchestra's director, Li Nan.

Iranian conductor Alexander Rahbari rehearses with the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing to prepare for the upcoming joint concert in Iran. Jiang Dong/China Daily

"Then we started marathon discussions on the details. At first they said no to women musicians. Then they said yes but that the women must wear black headscarves. They then asked for an all-Chinese repertoire, and finally agreed that some Russian pieces could be played."

A few months ago, Li says, the Iranian-Austrian conductor Alexander Rahbari, whose voice has a ready ear at the highest echelons of the Iranian government, joined discussions and they almost immediately seemed to move up a key.

Rahbari first conducted the Teheran Symphony Orchestra about 40 years ago, before the Islamic revolution, when the orchestra was in its heyday and hosted the likes of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the choreographer Maurice Bejart.

Rahbari left Iran in 1976 and did not return for another 30 years. In 2005 he was invited to rebuild the Teheran Symphony Orchestra but turned down the offer on political grounds. But eight years later, when Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran's president, he promised to revive the 80-year-old orchestra and invited Rahbari back.

Five months ago, Rahbari says, when he was conducting in Antalya, Turkey, he received a fresh offer.

"I said 'OK, now's the time go', and I flew to Teheran within two days. That's because Rouhani is only the second president in the world who has talked about the symphony orchestra with me."

When he heard that the China Philharmonic was to play in Teheran, he says, he inquired about the possibility of the two orchestras performing together. In practical terms that means some members of the Teheran orchestra will take the place of their counterparts in the Chinese orchestra.

An enthusiastic Rahbari says: "The idea is mine, and I've been pushing it. It's a picture for the world to observe, one that says, 'This is peace and this is music.' Misunderstanding evaporates"

Li says he initially had strong reservations about the idea but finally concluded it could work and says it will underline the importance of Chinese musicians respecting Islamic customs during the visit.

Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily

On the second evening, Aug 14, Rahbari will conduct the Teheran Symphony Orchestra as it plays Scheherazade by Rimski-Korsakov and Yu Long conducts the China Philharmonic playing the New World Symphony by Dvorak.

In preparation for the joint concert, Rahbari was in Beijing last week rehearsing with the China Philharmonic.

"It's a very nice orchestra," he says. "I hadn't been to Beijing before, but I am familiar with Chinese musicians and the way Chinese think. Over the past 40 years I've conducted a lot of orchestras with Chinese musicians.

"It took us just an hour and 40 minutes to finish rehearsals on the first day. This is a well disciplined orchestra. Good orchestras have similar qualities. When they get down to work, they're not Chinese or Iranian or German; they're all musicians. ...

"This is the beauty of the job. As a conductor, I say what to do. I don't say to an orchestra, 'Please play very beautifully' or 'Please play romantically'. It doesn't work that way. They don't know what 'romantic' is. I'll say, 'Make it shorter' or 'Make it longer.'"

Rahbari's positive feelings about the orchestra seem to have been reciprocal.

Zhao Yunpeng, the first cello, says: "He's charismatic and he's got very sharp ear. He seems to be able to pinpoint problems very quickly ... We knew little about him before but the rehearsals have been terrific."

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Chen Yuxi contributed to the story.

Yu Long, artistic director of China Philharmonic Orchestra.

An encore lined with silk

The China Philharmonic Orchestra's two-night appearance in Teheran next week will be the fourth stop on a 14-day tour taking in five countries on the Silk Road.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Iran-the last venue will be Greece-have long been absent from the itineraries of orchestras and other musical performers from China and elsewhere because of a lack of proper facilities, the logistics of getting to them and, in some cases, an unstable political environment.

However, the China Philharmonic received strong impetus to redress matters when President Xi Jinping proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, says Yu Long, the orchestra's artistic director.

"In ancient times the Silk Road was a network of trade and cultural transmission routes connecting the West and East. The orchestra wants to bring music to people along the route and to build a music bridge between East and West."

The latest tour is somewhat of a diplomatic encore for the orchestra, which played for Pope Benedict in the Vatican in 2008.


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