In 1964, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played two concerts in Tehran, Iran, and that market the last time an American orchestra traveled to the Middle Eastern country.
With the 50th anniversary of that trip this year, Pittsburgh is investigating the prospect of traveling to Iran again this September. This is just the latest of goodwill tours that orchestras have taken to hostile nations, acting as ambassadors and attempting to soften the relationships between unfriendly governments. Below are five of the most notable orchestra tours that held diplomatic significance:
1. New York Philharmonic to North Korea
In 2008, the New York Philharmonic, with the blessing of the U.S. government, traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea, offering some residents in the country their first experience of Gershwin, Bernstein and a taste of Western culture. The performance, broadcast live on North Korean television, was criticized in some quarters for rewarding a dictatorship; others suggested it was an emotional event for both the country’s citizens and the members of the Philharmonic. “It’s an incredible joy and sadness and connection like I’ve never seen, bassist Jon Deak told The New York Times. “They really opened their hearts to us.”
2. West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Visits Ramallah
A product of Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestine activist Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded in 1999 to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bring young musicians of Jewish and Arab descent together to make music. The orchestra is based in Seville, Spain, a city chosen for having both Jewish and Muslim legacies. And its performances are better received outside the musicians’ homelands. However, the group traveled to Ramallah in 2005 for a concert. The visit is considered one of the first non-militaristic encounters between Israelis and residents of the Occupied Territories.
Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2005 (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
3. Boston Symphony Goes to the U.S.S.R.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra was the first American symphony to go behind the Iron Curtain, when it traveled to the Soviet Union in September 1956 under the direction of Charles Munch. Three years after the death of Stalin, the orchestra received a grant from the Eisenhower administration to perform two concerts in both Leningrad and in Moscow to great acclaim. One of the Moscow concerts received a 10-minute standing ovation. This trip ushered in a long-running exchange between the great orchestras of the U.S. and the Soviet Union
4. Moscow State Symphony's 20-State US Tour
Four years after the BSO’s series in the Soviet Union, the Moscow State Symphony gave the first U.S. concerts by a Soviet orchestra. Led by Konstantin Ivanov, planned a seven-week 20-city tour across American. Its first performance at Carnegie Hall was covered on the front page by the New York Times, which remarked on the ensemble’s military-like entrances and exits, and its discipline in playing an all-Tchaikovsky program. For the tour finale, Van Cliburn joined the Symphony at Madison Square Garden.
5. The Philadelphia Orchestra in China
Ping pong may have provided the first strike at breaking down barriers between the United States and China in 1971, but two years later the United States and the Philadelphia Orchestra served up a tour of Beijing and Shanghai. The trip was not without drama: Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, made several demands of maestro Eugene Ormandy and his orchestra, including that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony be replaced with his Sixth. The Philadelphia Orchestra then had to scramble to find sheet music for the replacement piece. However, the trip established an ongoing relationship between the orchestra and China. Just last year, the ensemble toured the country to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its initial visit.
Photo: The Central Philharmonic Society of China gives the Philadelphia Orchestra a new brass gong during the 1973 tour of China (Philadelphia Orchestra Archives).