Philadelphia Orchestra Tours Asia
First American symphony to perform in Vietnam
The Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch embarked on a three-week, 12-concert, seven-city Asian tour May 10–30, 1999. The tour marked the Philadelphia's ninth visit to Japan since 1967 and its first to Malaysia and Taiwan. Continuing a deeply appreciated 14-year tradition, CIGNA Corporation once again sponsored the tour.
But most significant is the fact that the Philadelphians made their debut in Vietnam, becoming the first professional American symphony orchestra to perform there, with concerts in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (familiar to most of us as Saigon). Not until the 1990s had any American instrumental ensemble been to Vietnam, and then only two: the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of New York and a student orchestra from Long Island. In her brief yet impassioned speech at the press conference announcing the tour, the dean of the Hanoi Conservatory, Tran Thu Ha, called the orchestra's week in her country "the most important cultural event in Vietnam in this century."
Underlining the power of music to overcome the worst, Tran told me that the conservatory, founded in 1956, continued to function all through the war, with students and staff moving to different villages for safety. She described people practicing and performing while bombs fell. In keeping with this spirit, one of the Philadelphia's three concerts, in the Hanoi opera house, was free for the children of Hanoi, and there were master classes and tutorials at the Conservatory, as well as gifts and instrumental demonstrations for the underprivileged children of the Sunshine School of the Christina Nobel Foundation. As Sawallisch declared, "There is no better way to make peace than with music."
There was yet another musically historic relevance to this tour: Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Ridge, is a strong supporter of the arts, and he arranged for his Pennsylvania Asian trade mission to coincide with the tour. Ridge, who fought in Vietnam, thus became the first governor to participate in a Philadelphia Orchestra tour; Philip Horn, executive director of the Governor's Council on the Arts, also attended parts of it.