Q&A with Jennifer Lin

Q: What came first: Beethoven in Beijing the documentary or book? 

A: The documentary takes the honor. I co-directed the film with Sharon Mullally and teamed up with Sam Katz of History Making Productions to produce the project. Beethoven in Beijing premiered virtually on December 16, 2020 and had a national broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances on April 16, 2021. You can watch the film on PBS’s Passport video-on-demand platform, or by visiting beethoveninbeijing.com.

 

Q: So why write a book? 

 

A: Two reasons: There was more to say. I started researching the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history in China in 2015, interviewing more than 100 people across the U.S. and China and poring through archives. But only a fraction of that material made the movie. 

 

The other reason was this book was my pandemic project. We put our finishing touches on the film on March 1, 2020—just as the world as we knew it was ending. Like all of us, I was stuck at home. All the film festivals that we had planned on attending had shifted to virtual events. I needed something to focus my attention. I thought, why not write a book? 

 

Q: How is the book different?

 

A: In the documentary, we use the 1973 tour as a starting point for our story, but the film actually covers a half-century of music history. With the book, I keep the lens focused just on the 1973 tour.

 

Q: Why was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 tour to China so important?

 

A: They were the first American orchestra to perform in China. But you have to look at the big picture. At the time, the United States and China were isolated. Ever since the Korean War, we were enemies. 

 

Then President Nixon shocked the world by taking steps to renew relations, culminating in his traveling to China in 1972 to meet Chairman Mao. In the aftermath of that trip, Nixon asked the Philadelphians to visit the country as cultural ambassadors. Their job was to win over the Chinese public, and they succeeded. 

 

But here’s an important fact to ponder as you read the book or watch the movie: In 1973, there were precious few Americans actually living in China. Safe to say, it was fewer than 100. 

 

Now imagine the arrival of 130 Philadelphians. This was memorable both for the Americans and the Chinese musicians they encountered. 

 

Q: Why tell the story as oral history? 

 

A: So many Philadelphia musicians, as well as members of the press and the orchestra’s entourage, have such vivid memories of their 1973 tour of China. WCAU-TV reporter Kati Marton would tell me later that these were some of the most intense days of her life. I wanted to let them tell the story in their own words.

Plus it was fun to write. Assembling an oral history is like doing a puzzle with thousands of pieces.

 

Q: Is there new material in the book?

 

A: Lots. Even though I had conducted numerous interviews on and off camera for the documentary, I began reaching out to even more people when I decided to assemble this oral history. I spoke to members of the entourage, like the married doctor and nurse who traveled with the musicians, and members of the press corps. 

 

I found a trove of fresh material from an unlikely place—Wikileaks. The website has unclassified diplomatic cables. Although the United States didn’t have an embassy in Beijing, we had a “liaison office.” The cables that I include in the book were sent by diplomats in China to their counterparts at the State Department in Washington, D.C. These China watchers paid close attention to how the orchestra was received, divining meaning from every gesture.

 

I also mined personal journals for material, one kept by a piccolo player, another by the wife of a Beijing-based diplomat. 

 

The book, too, features some rare photographs from the archives of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a selection from the Nixon Library. 

 

Q: Do you have any favorite tales? 

 

A: That’s like asking a parent who’s your favorite child! 

 

But yes, there’s one tale that stands out. It didn’t make the movie, but it involved an impromptu sidewalk serenade by violinist Robert de Pasquale in Shanghai. It’s one of those tiny moments that really captured the entire meaning of the trip. 

 

You have to read the book for the details!

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