© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bankrupt At Home, Philly Orchestra Looks To China

The Philadelphia Orchestra, which declared bankruptcy last year, has been performing in China, where it is looking to develop new streams of revenue.
Frank Langfitt

The Philadelphia Orchestra has just wrapped up a 10-day visit to China, its seventh trip to the country over the past four decades.

But this trip was different.

The orchestra is preparing to come out of bankruptcy, and this tour was about its survival. It hopes to balance its books by building new audiences and new revenues in the world's second-largest economy.

The orchestra was on a fast-paced schedule, packed with big concerts, school visits and small promotional events, including one in a high-tech park. Orchestra members played at the opening of a joint research center between a Shanghai institute and Philadelphia's Drexel University.

Don Liuzzi, the principal timpanist, first came to China with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1993.

"It's night and day. We were all busy doing tourist things 20 years ago," he says. "Running around seeing the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City. Now we're playing at them."

A Change In Fortunes

That shift in itinerary marks a shift in fortunes over the years.

It's night and day. We were all busy doing tourist things 20 years ago. Running around seeing the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City. Now we're playing at them.

The Philadelphia Orchestra first came here in 1973 as a part of President Nixon's opening to China. Back then, the orchestra was solvent and a sensation.

China, on the other hand, had no decent concert facilities and was poor. Today, it seems more the other way around.

"Well, it's kind of ironic, that in 1973 China was emerging, and in essence, still in 1993 they were still emerging into a modern country and the Philadelphia Orchestra's recent history is now we're emerging from bankruptcy," Liuzzi says.

This visit focused on developing commercial partnerships. The orchestra is hoping to come every year for the next five, doing everything from concerts in inland cities to master classes with young musicians.

"A lot of this trip was showing provincial governments what we could do," Liuzzi says. "And that's part of marketing. Marketing in the best sense: your showing the variety of things you can do."

Coming Out Of Bankruptcy

The orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, which followed a long decline in its audience at home. Over roughly two decades, attendance for the main subscription season fell by about 40 percent.

Orchestra president Allison Vulgamore says the institution also faced some familiar, financial problems.

"We had underfunded liabilities in pension which are very common now. Like hospitals and universities, we've been hit by the market and our endowments," Vulgamore says.

On this tour, Vulgamore has been looking for the political support and corporate sponsorship that would allow the orchestra to establish a three-week residency here annually. Each visit would cost millions of dollars.

The orchestra has a partnership with the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing. And Bank of China gave hundreds of thousands of dollars for this visit.

But Vulgamore knows she has to do a lot more to make this fly.

"It's very ambitious," she says. "And it's based on, is it possible to grow sufficient fee structures in China to afford a large brand?"

Understanding China's Business Environment

Qian Shijin is artistic director of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, which hosted last night's concert. He says the orchestra is a respected brand because of its long history in China.

But it also faces a complex business environment completely different from the U.S. For instance, unlike in America, private philanthropy is just developing here.

"Owners of private Chinese companies are not interested in classical music and ballet. What they are interested in is pop culture," Qian says.

Qian says developing relations with local authorities is crucial. In China's state-driven capitalism, government pushes its own companies to subsidize the arts.

"Of course some companies heed the government's call because they have to listen to the government," Qian says. "So when the government says go sponsor someone, companies immediately follow directions. Government is very important!"

At the final concert, which was sold out, the orchestra played several pieces including "Don Juan" by Richard Strauss. Top tickets sold for nearly $300 — unimaginably high for most Chinese. But some hard-core fans still managed to go.

Yang Dongyan, who studies piano at a music high school, spent $140 for his seat.

"For students, the tickets are a bit expensive," he says. "but once you listen to the concert, you know it's worth it."

One of the big questions facing the Philadelphia Orchestra is how many other people in other Chinese cities will feel the same way.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.