ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Different country, heightened diplomatic mission.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's busy Friday in Mongolia's capital — its first of two days here — was a long way from its glamorous Beethoven Symphony No. 9 performance Wednesday in Beijing, which was broadcast on Chinese TV and recorded for commercial release. Members of the first U.S. orchestra to play in massive but isolated Mongolia, the Philadelphians quietly spent the day tilling the outer musical fields.
After a midnight arrival in Ulaanbaatar, the third city on the orchestra's 16-day Asian tour, violinist Phil Kates was up before 9 a.m. to head into the Ger District on the edge of the city to give impromptu concerts at an orphanage. Hornist Jennifer Montone and trumpeter David Bilger, both esteemed principal players, were set to give master classes at the National Defense University — yes, to members of a military band.
"Just tell us where to be," said Montone. "Whatever!"
Those visits defied initial expectations.
Kates had reason to expect hardscrabble poverty among the 50 or so orphans at Blue Skies Ger Village — a branch of the apolitical, non-denominational Christina Noble Children's Foundation. Not so. In the compound of tidy, tent-like gers (also called yurts), with all with doors facing south to avoid the north wind, each dwelling had a specific function — eating, administration, medical care, and dorms — all tidy and decorated with traditional Mongolian bric-a-brac-style painting.
An old hand at outreach, Kates brought Nyamsaikhan Odsuren (a Mongolian violinist/conductor who is home from the University of South Carolina) to play light pieces by Bach and Beethoven. Kates zeroed in on a child while giving his violin a fun, hard pluck. Nyamka (as he is called for short) played soulful Mongolian folk songs. Who knows if the kids (ages 3 to 5) recognized them, said staff physician AnuJin Batbold. Most important, she said, is that "the children were very calm, relaxed and at peace." A feat at that age.
For the older kids, a music room had three acoustic guitars, a drum set, and an electric piano, where one of them tapped out a folk melody with the right hand while Kates improvised an accompaniment with his left hand. "Say 'Go Phillies,' " said Kates to the kids while taking a group photo. But that doesn't sit so well on Mongolian tongues.
Outside in the blazing noontime sun along the dusty ger-lined roads, a large construction vehicle drove by with a swastika noticeably displayed. "We have that here," explained one local, somewhat abashedly, referring to a small isolationist movement that resents workers from Vietnam and China serving as cheap labor in Mongolia. Those laborers aren't always safe on the streets.
The musicians could've been cooling their heels in Beijing: The orchestra's Mongolian concerts had originally been meant as a highlight of the Asian tour but were nearly canceled when the Mongolian government, recovering from a financial crisis, couldn't afford the full orchestra.
Thanks to $50,000 from the U.S. Department of State and other partners, Kates, Montone, and Bilger made the trip as part of an 18-member contingent for a series of small-scale concerts and master classes. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin reportedly wasn't encouraged to be among them, for fear of intensifying the embarrassment over the financial crisis. (During the gap in the touring schedule, he and his partner, Pierre Tourville, made a quick rest-and-relaxation trip to Vietnam.)
Some of the musicians, though, jumped at the chance to go to Mongolia, which is why Montone and Bilger found themselves at the guard gates of the National Defense University. In a spacious auditorium — and on a stage incongruously decorated with silver, red, and chartreuse curtains suggesting 1950s Las Vegas — they found themselves among young musicians who were somewhat new to their instruments.
Montone has been playing for 30 years; her main student had been playing for two. She adapted. Both Philadelphians worked on breathing and articulation in ways that made immediate, even dramatic, improvements in the young players they were working with. "You never know what you're going to get in a master class," said Bilger.
"The timing wasn't good, because 30 to 40 of our older players are away right now in Russia," said B. Altankhuyag, one of the academy's jurors, who decides who will be in the band. "But all the techniques that they [the Philadelphia musicians] gave us were very helpful."
It wasn't through some oddball quirk that National Defense University was on the orchestra's schedule. Along with that of the United States, Mongolia's military has been a major peacekeeping presence in Afghanistan. "They're among our closest partners," said ambassador Jennifer Galt at an evening reception. And it's a personal relationship that involves frequent communication on both sides.
So the National Defense University appearance had what diplomatic circles call "layers of importance." In general, the Philadelphia Orchestra presence has become a focal point for celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mongolia — a strategic ally positioned between Russia and China.
Then there's Saturday's scheduled outdoor concert at Beatles Square, where the Philadelphians will perform alongside a statue of the Fab Four. Is the monument a cheesy cultural aberration? Again, no. Beatles records were banned during Mongolia's era of Soviet influence, though, thanks to smuggled-in copies, local musicians learned the music by ear. In fact, Odsuren's father was kicked out of high school for singing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at an assembly.