Back in China 50 years after historic trip, a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist hopes to build ties

BEIJING – Fifty years after the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history-making visit to China in 1973 that helped build then-fledgling U.S.-China ties, Davyd Booth hopes for a repeat performance.

The 73-year-old violinist returned to China this week with 13 fellow orchestra members to mark the 50th anniversary of the trip and carry on the ensemble’s decadeslong effort to bring the United States and China closer together despite current political disagreements.

“People all over the world are absolutely the same,” Booth said Thursday in Beijing, on the eve of their performance with the China National Symphony Orchestra at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

The orchestra’s return in itself is a sign of improving ties ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.

There may be differences in governments and religion but people’s reaction to music is the same, Booth said after playing piano at a hospital with a violinist and cellist from the orchestra.

“Music touches the hearts of everyone, regardless of where they are in the world, where they grew up,” he said.

The orchestra’s trip comes at a fraught time as the world’s two largest economies feud over trade, technology, defense and human rights. Both sides hope that the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco next week will bring some stability to the relationship, though no major breakthroughs are foreseen.

Booth noted that a number of Chinese play for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and some of the world’s top soloists are Chinese.

“We’re so important to each other. I mean, half the things that we use in our life are made in China,” he said. “Our lives are … closely entwined, perhaps even more so than the governments would like to admit.”

After the 50th anniversary concert in Beijing on Friday, the musicians will later perform at the Tianjin Julliard School and give chamber concerts in Shanghai and the nearby historic city of Suzhou. They will also offer master classes during their stay.

Booth remembers the trip he made as a 23-year-old violinist, when then-music director Eugene Ormandy brought the Philadelphia Orchestra to China at the request of President Richard Nixon, who a year earlier made his own historic visit to the country.

For Booth, his first trip abroad was eye-opening. Everyone had the same hairstyle and wore the same type of jackets, and he had trouble distinguishing women from men. Looking back, he feels fortunate to have gotten a glimpse of China before it embarked on its rapid path to modernization.

“Beijing was a lot of farm country,” he said. “I remember seeing fields where there were farmers working. They had wooden carts, wooden wheels. … It was just an amazing sight.”

Booth returned 20 years later, in 1993, to a changed China on the orchestra’s next trip — people no longer wore the same jackets. Watching from his hotel room window, he was astonished by the speed at which a building was going up, adding a new floor every day.

Since then, the full orchestra has made 10 more trips to China and is planning to come again next year.

“In the past 50 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has paid 12 visits to China, insisting on fulfilling its promise of using music as a bridge to promote people-to-people and cultural exchanges,” said Yang Wanming, the president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

He spoke at a reception for the orchestra members at a government guest house on Thursday.

Booth, who became the orchestra’s harpsichordist in 1998, has been on every trip. He recalled the years when smog turned the skies a muddy yellow, a byproduct of China’s rapid industrial growth, and said the air has become much cleaner today.

When Chinese ask him about America, Booth says he tells them that people at home share some of the same experiences and desires. American cities also had to deal with smog, a few decades before China.

“As the economy and people are more successful, make more money, they want the same things … to make more money to buy more cars so the streets are more crowded,” he said. “We have that in the United States.”

“I keep coming back to that, but I think it’s a very important thing,” he said.

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Associated Press video producer Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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