N.W. filmmakers' 'Beijing' to mark historic China visit


Three Northwest filmmakers — a Chestnut Hill resident, a West Mt. Airy resident and an alumna of Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown — will present a community screening of their award-winning documentary, “Beethoven in Beijing,” on Thursday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Michael A. Nutter Theatre of the Pennsylvania Convention Center to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic trip to China.

The trio — co-directors Sharon Mullally, of Chestnut Hill, and Jennifer Lin, the “Mount” graduate, and West Mt. Airy resident Sam Katz, founder of History Making Productions (HMP) and executive producer of “Beijing” — made the film about the history-making event that began Sept. 10, 1973, when the “Fabulous Philadelphians” traveled into uncharted political and musical territory to become the first American orchestra ever to perform in the People’s Republic of China.

At the time, China was isolated and suffering from the massive relocation, “re-education” and enslavement of millions of Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Even so, enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the orchestra’s tour was palpable.

Following the screening on Sept. 7, Sam Katz will interview musicians who were part of the 1973 tour. Jennifer Lin, who also authored a companion oral history about the tour, will join the conversation. In 1983 Lin was hired as a reporter by the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she stayed for 31 years, eventually achieving her goal of being a foreign correspondent in China for four years in the 1990s.

“That tour was the beginning of unparalleled cultural exchange between musicians in Philadelphia and China,” Lin said last week. “Our documentary celebrates an important chapter in Philadelphia’s history as well as the strong cultural ties that bind American and Chinese musicians.”

Mullally, who lived in Germantown for 34 years and Mt. Airy for 19 years before moving to Chestnut Hill, traveled to China in 2017 with the orchestra and the HMP core team from Philly. “The number of people on the streets in Beijing and Shanghai was astounding,” she recalled last week. “The skylines in both those cities are stunningly modern and neon-filled. There was still a lot of police and military presence on the streets, even many years after the protests in Tiananmen Square.

“I was impressed that the audiences for classical music in China were so much younger than here in the U.S. 'Beethoven in Beijing' is a many-layered story, and I think we were able to tell it beautifully.”

Katz did not go to China for the “Beethoven” documentary, but he had been there five times before on business. “Our storytelling and creativity in 'Beethoven' were superb ... ” he said last week. “Most of all, I am proud of our association with our orchestra!”

When asked what film projects he and his team are currently working on, Katz, who has lived with his wife, Connie, in West Mt. Airy for 40 years, said, “I am working on two big projects: 'Boys to Fame' is about the lifelong bond between (sportswriter) Ray Didinger and (former Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame receiver) Tommy McDonald and is based in part on Ray’s play, 'Tommy and Me.' And 'Soul of the City' is a five-part series on Philadelphia’s 20th century musical history.”

According to Lin, there were fewer than 100 Americans living in China at the time of the orchestra's 1973 trip. “There were more Philadelphians than that on the plane, 130,” she told us in an earlier interview. “The Chinese people they encountered had never had any contact with Americans ...

“In 1979 my dad took us to Shanghai. They were just starting to recover from the Cultural Revolution. We stayed in the house my dad grew up in. There were at least three families living in the one 'rowhouse.' Now it it's all high-rises and bullet trains between every city. Now every city has elaborate new concert halls like the Kimmel Center.”

Lin particularly loves this anecdote about Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Bob DiPasquale, who saw a child playing a violin on a street in Beijing. “Bob started playing Sibelius and Bach on the kid's small violin,” Lin said. “A crowd of about 100 people gathered around to listen. They had never heard this kind of music before ... This work took up a lot of my life, but I am so proud of the film and the book, which has gone deeper than the film could.”

When asked why she and her partner moved to Chestnut Hill, Mullally replied, “We were thinking we'd give Center City a try so we could walk to concerts, movies and restaurants. Then the pandemic hit, and we learned how much our neighborhood really means to us. Our friends were close by, we could get into the Wissahickon easily, and we loved our independent bookstores, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and food co-op. And there is a spirit of cooperation and community that defines Northwest Philly.”

For more information about the Sept. 7 event, visit beethoveninbeijing.com and register at bit.ly/BeethovenTicket. Admission is free. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com