Music Director Jaap van Zweden leads the New York Philharmonic in Shanghai, 2019. [Image: Chris Lee, The New York Philharmonic]

New York Philharmonic Returns to Asia

Asia Taiwan China

The New York Philharmonic returned to Asia this summer, continuing its long history of cultural ambassadorship and cementing long-standing ties to the region enabled by a shared love of music.

Music has long been a bridge between different cultures and peoples, and the New York Philharmonic (NY Phil) continued this tradition with its return to Asia this summer for a tour of Taiwan and Hong Kong. Music Director Jaap van Sweden led the orchestra in a series of five concerts in three cities – Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Hong Kong from June 29th to July 5th, 2023.

They were joined by Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn, performing the Brahms Violin Concerto alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique, and Dvořák Symphony No. 9, From the New World. The last was first premiered by the orchestra in 1893 and has been a staple in foreign tours for orchestras across the globe.

The NY Phil, as one of America’s most prestigious symphony orchestras, has long served as a cultural ambassador abroad, having toured in over 430 cities over its 180-year history. Past tours have taken the orchestra to the Soviet Union in 1959 under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, the People’s Republic of China in 1998 as the first American orchestra to play in mainland China, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 2008 in a groundbreaking televised performance.

The concerts this summer were the 18th time the orchestra has played in Taipei, the 15th time in Hong Kong, and the 3rd time in Kaohsiung. Music Director van Zweden also leads the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and is in his penultimate season in New York before leaving for the Seoul Philharmonic, highlighting the substantial global ties that Western classical music continues to create.

Furthering this mission of cultural and professional exchange, members of the orchestra visited Shanghai following the tour to continue the organization’s partnership with the Shanghai Orchestra Academy. The academy was founded in 2014 in partnership with the NY Phil, with American musicians giving lectures, lessons, and performances to prospective M.A. candidates at the Shanghai Conservatory in partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. While exchanges were virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, the tour provided the opportunity to resume in-person programming, including two chamber music concerts at the academy.

The strong relationships formed through the shared experience of music extend well beyond this example. Western classical music is immensely popular in East Asia, with over 40 million children learning piano in China alone. This cross-cultural connection is felt in the large number of foreign students studying in American conservatories (music schools), as well as the large number of Asian American luminaries in the profession, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Midori.

These relations continue to be cemented by engagements such as orchestral tours and are indicative of foundational people-to-people ties formed out of a shared passion for music!

Joseph Maga is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a student at U.C. Berkeley, studying Economics and Music, with minors in Political Economy and Public Policy.