When Lorin Maazel lifts his baton in Taipei's National Concert Hall next month to begin Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, he will mark his valedictory visit to Asia with the New York Philharmonic. Beginning on February 11, the tour traces a course from Taipei and the major port city of Kaohsiung, to Hong Kong and mainland China's two largest cities, Shanghai and Beijing. With his increasingly multicultural Orchestra, the conductor will celebrate significant "firsts" during Asia 2008, his fourth tour to the region with the Philharmonic since 2002. Among them are the Orchestra's long-awaited debut in cosmopolitan Shanghai, the booming economic and cultural hub of continental China, and two performances in the premiere season of Beijing's dazzling, futuristic new concert hall.
Also groundbreaking: this trip is the Orchestra's first international expedition under the aegis of its Global Sponsor, Credit Suisse. "We are extremely proud to be sponsoring this tour," said Karlheinz Muhr, managing director of Credit Suisse, a global financial institution and a presence in Asia for 150 years. With deep roots there in investment and private banking, and in asset management, the institution knows the region well. It is precisely this synergy between the firm's international expertise and the Orchestra's role as transnational cultural ambassador that has led to their union. As Paul Calello, CEO of Credit Suisse's Investment Bank, observed, "We can think of no better way to kick off our sponsorship than with this exciting tour of Asia. We are proud of our association with the Orchestra and the characteristics of excellence and innovation that it represents."
Asia 2008 is sure to be a sentimental journey, not only for Mr. Maazel but for many of the Philharmonic musicians. Since hiring its first native of mainland China, cellist Qiang Tu, in 1995, the Orchestra has welcomed seven others, along with five members from Taiwan. Associate Conductor Xian Zhang, who joined the Philharmonic in 2004, is also a native of China and spent much of her youth in Beijing, at its prestigious Central Conservatory. She first encountered the Philharmonic during the Orchestra's inaugural tour to China's mainland, in 1998, when she was a faculty member at the Beijing Conservatory. On this tour she will lead a Young People's Concert on February 17 at the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Center, and share the podium there with Mr. Maazel on February 18.
In this region new orchestras and concert halls are emerging as the audience for classical music keeps growing. Ms. Zhang believes that the Orchestra's cadre of Chinese members will inspire compatriots. "When you see people of similar background, you feel inspired," she said.
Principal Oboe Liang Wang, a native of China who left his homeland at age 15, will be the soloist in Ms. Zhang's concerts in Hong Kong, performing Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto. "It will be very emotional," Mr. Wang said of the tour. "I've had no musical contact [with China] since I left." He was deeply impressed by a Philharmonic recording he heard when he was eight‹of Leonard Bernstein conducting Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite: Mr. Wang and his Orchestra will surely spark similar inspiration. "The Philharmonic has a sound no other orchestra has," said Mr. Wang. "It is so New York‹so diverse, so many flavors from individual players that meld so well together."
Cellist Wei Yu, in his first Philharmonic season, is from Shanghai, where he began studying with his great-uncle, then the principal cello in the Shanghai Symphony. Wei Yu made his debut at age 11 with that ensemble, and now he will return for the first time as a performer. "All my friends, family, and parents will attend," he remarked, anticipating the joy of sharing the Orchestra's "exciting music-making" and "wonderful chemistry." Mr. Yu's fellow cellists are in for a treat, too: he plans to take section members to lunch in Shanghai.
Beijing‹the Orchestra's final stop‹may prove to be its most spectacular. On December 22 the Chinese capital inaugurated the first season of its National Centre for the Performing Arts, a futuristic titanium-clad glass dome, referred to as the "Egg," that houses three separate halls located near the Great Hall of the People. Patrons who enter the complex on February 23 and 24, via a passageway beneath the man-made lake near Tiananmen Square, will hear Lorin Maazel lead the Philharmonic in masterpieces in-cluding Tchaikovsky's Path_tique Symphony and Dvoršk's Seventh Symphony.
Since its first visit to this region in 1961, and to China in particular in 1984, the Orchestra has continued to be instrumental in shaping Asia's interest in and love for the best of classical music. Today's ensemble of the world's top musicians, led by an internationally acclaimed Music Director, returns to perform classics from Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Brahms's Fourth Symphony to Elgar's Cello Concerto (with guest Alisa Weilerstein) and Barber's Violin Concerto (with Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow). The Philharmonic will continue to widen its impact in this region where the universal language of music is well understood.
Pamela Bayless is a New York-based writer.