Cheesesteaks in China: the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new arrangement

Philadelphia Orchestra, China announce partnership

As a born-and-raised Philadelphia-area native, part of me is bugged that they need to go abroad for help, but things suck right now. And I think this fits in well as a response to the quandary the orchestra has found itself in lately.

They are an old-world institution. They can and will modernize, especially with the charismatic YNS at the helm, and he’s selling out the hall when he’s up there. But nonetheless, this is an old-world orchestra, and one that can’t go all backwards-baseball-cap without seeming to turn its back on 111 years of history. And it’s an illustrious history indeed, that anyone would and should be proud of. So getting too “hip” and “edgy” was always going to be a far clumsier evolution for these guys than for any other American orchestra except probably another Big 5 band. It’d be like watching Grandpa try to use modern slang. It’s just not going to work.

However.

There are places in this world where old-world is still okay, and China is one of them. Yes, they are as into “hip” and “edgy” as any other country, but they seem to also be rather driven in terms of old-world achievement. They seem to be able somehow to reconcile the desire to be with-it and the love of classical music. Bad-mouth the quite nice and incredibly talented and unique (and that is not a dirty word) Lang Lang all you want, he is the icon of a society that prizes designer sneakers and technique-heavy classical music, what classical music lovers in this country claim to want desperately — a means by which Prokofiev becomes “cool” among fashion-obsessed youth.

China is the place for an orchestra that is an old-world anachronism in western culture, since the East doesn’t care about our definition of “anachronism” as much. Or at all. Ipods, expensive track shoes, and Liszt? They don’t see the irony in that juxtaposition.

So for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a country packed to the gills with trendy young people who kill themselves to play Chopin and who expect an orchestra to wear penguin suits is pretty much perfect. With their political and sentimental history in China, it’s even better.

And hey, it’s one country where the damn economy hasn’t passed the toilet long ago and lodged itself in the septic tank by now.

I predict that a lot of the pundits who are all up in arms about getting more blue-haired kids with nose piercings to come to concerts by playing tweetable avant-garde hip-hop fusion will be a bit pissy about the Old Farts of Philadelphia making an end run around a pressure to modernize that was thought to be unavoidable.

Well, modernizing means many things. Here we have an example of musical globalization, and you can bet that the other Big 5 orchs are probably grinding their teeth a little over the fact that the Philadelphians have apparently become America’s Orchestra beyond our borders. If this works out well for them, being the first to fail might have been a blessing in disguise.

I need to know how similar this setup is to other such setups in the past, whether this sort of thing has even been done before by any orchestra. Put bluntly, this may be something that is incredibly average and being touted as earthshaking. If it is as unique as it seems however, it’s … interesting anyway, and it does appear to slot nicely into the special considerations of an illustrious pseudo-Victorian powerhouse that can’t afford to modernize too thoroughly without appearing to turn its back on itself.

That said, it’ll be interesting to see what they do domestically. Again, YNS appears to be an appealing person here as well, and will fit nicely into American culture as much as Chinese. Although I’m sick of the “Pines of Rome” for Chrissakes, dude. That’s got Dutoit all over it. Pick something else!

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