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Bankrupt At Home, Philly Orchestra Looks To China
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Bankrupt At Home, Philly Orchestra Looks To China


The famed Philadelphia Orchestra has just wrapped up a 10-day visit to China. You're listening to several members performing yesterday in Shanghai. The orchestra has gone to China six times before. But this trip was different. The orchestra is preparing to come out of bankruptcy. And this latest tour was about nothing less than its survival. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, the orchestra hopes it can help balance its books by building new audiences in the world's second largest economy.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The orchestra has been on a fast-paced schedule, packed with big concerts, school visits and small promotional events, like this one yesterday in a high-tech park. Orchestra members played at the opening of a joint research center between Shanghai institute and Philadelphia's Drexel University.


DON LIUZZI: I'm Don Liuzzi. I play principal timpani in the Philadelphia orchestra.

LANGFITT: Liuzzi first came to China with the orchestra in 1993. He says that tour and this one...

LIUZZI: Oh, it's night and day. I mean, we were all busy doing tourist things 20 years ago.


LIUZZI: You know, running around, seeing the Temple of Heaven or the Forbidden City or whatever. Now, we're playing at them.

LANGFITT: That shift in itinerary marks a shift in fortunes over the years. The Philadelphia Orchestra first came here in 1973 as 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.

LIUZZI: Well, it's kind of ironic. In 1973 the - China was emerging, and in essence still in 1993 was - they were really emerging into a modern country, and the Philadelphia Orchestra's recent history is now we're emerging from bankruptcy.

LANGFITT: 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.

LIUZZI: A lot of this was kind of - this trip was showing, I think, various governments, provincial governments what we could do.

LANGFITT: Do you feel a little like a traveling salesman?


LIUZZI: Yeah. That's OK. You know, you got to do that sometimes, you know? And that's part of marketing. I mean, marketing in the best sense. You're showing the varieties of things that you can do.

LANGFITT: The orchestra went into bankruptcy last year. The Chapter 11 filing followed a long decline in audience. 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.

ALLISON VULGAMORE: We had underfunded liabilities in pension, which is very common now. Like hospitals and universities, we've been hit by the market and our endowments.

LANGFITT: On this tour, Volgamore 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 Volgamore knows she has to do a lot more to make this fly.

VULGAMORE: It's very ambitious, and it's based on is it possible to grow sufficient fee structures in China to afford a large brand?

LANGFITT: 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.

QIAN SHIJIN: (Through Translator) Owners of private Chinese companies are not interested in classical music and ballet. What they are interested in is pop culture.

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

SHIJIN: (Through Translator) Of course, some companies heed the government's call because they have to listen to the government. When the government says go sponsor someone, companies immediately follow directions. The government is very important.


LANGFITT: At last night's sold out concert, 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 studies piano at a music high school here. He spent $140 for his seat.

YANG DONGYAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: 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. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.



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