Gabriel Sakakeeny says the invitation came completely out of the blue.
“My brother George is a famous bassoonist, his wife is Chinese, we have relatives in Beijing,” says the music director for the American Philharmonic, still a little confused. “Maybe someone searched for ‘George Sakakeeny’ online, and they came up with the American Philharmonic instead.”
However it happened, the “people’s orchestra” has been honored with an invitation to appear next month at some of the best concert halls in China, playing concerts in Shanghai, Beijing, Yantai and Qingdao. China’s Ministry of Culture is funding half the airfare, along with every nonsightseeing expense, for the 70 musicians and their 12 “camp followers,” as Sakakeeny fondly calls the various attendant spouses and children.
To avoid any crosscultural snafus, orchestra members are taking a class on appropriate Chinese etiquette and have been asked to remove anything political from their luggage or instrument cases, such as “Free Tibet” stickers. Musicians are also tutored on what to anticipate once at the concert hall. Chinese audiences, for instance, expect a lengthy program and see no problem with chatting on cell phones or with one another.
“There will literally be people in the audience timing us,” Sakakeeny says. “If it’s less than 90 minutes, people will ask for their money back. It’s a very different scene.”
In a business deal that felt more like a marriage compromise, the tour coordinators from China had specific requests for the program’s lineup. “We have a mixed program of Chinese, American and European music,” Sakakeeny says. “We thought we would open with their national anthem, but it’s pretty controversial at the moment, so they asked us to play ‘Ode to the Red Flag’ instead. It’s very communist sounding.”
The special program also includes three pieces from movie scores by John Williams, including the instantly recognizable, four-movement suite from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The second half features European classics like Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” and Respighi’s Pines of Rome alongside the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, the “Spring Festival Overture” and “Jasmine Flower,” three staples of the repertoire in China.
The American Philharmonic hasn’t always jetted across the Pacific. The group first sprang from grassroots Cotati in 1998, when the city council expressed interest in Cotati having its own orchestra. Sakakeeny saw an opportunity for an experiment: what if, he proposed, there was an orchestra based on and funded by the community?
City leaders handed Sakakeeny $12,000 and told him to make it happen. In an overwhelming response from the first free concert in Cotati’s La Plaza Park, the audience passed an unprompted hat around for donations even as the volunteer-built stage sank into the mud under 3,000 pounds of rented grand piano.
Sakakeeny has stayed roughly two free concerts ahead of the game through pay-it-forward audience donations, but the economic drag of the last few years has hit professional orchestras and concertgoers right where it hurts. “People still donate the same amount,” Sakakeeny says, “but only about half the number of people show up.”
To make up the difference, and to help the orchestra continue to present free concerts, the American Philharmonic has arranged a series of ticketed concerts in the next few months with smaller ensembles at intimate venues. “They’re not all at the Wells Fargo Center, and they’re not for the same audience,” Sakakeeny explains. “This is purely fundraising. The concerts are for people who want to donate, and they get a really great time at a beautiful venue in return.”
Not to worry, free-concert lovers—the price tag falls away once the series is over. Sakakeeny wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is my purpose in life,” he says. “It’s a lovely, community-based expression of something I will do until I drop.”
The American Philharmonic presents a program of American composers on Saturday&–Sunday, Nov. 20&–21, at the Wells Fargo Center (50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa; Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm; both free). On Sunday, Dec. 19, the orchestra plays its entire China tour program in a fundraising farewell concert at the Wells Fargo Center (8pm; $35). Full schedule of chamber concerts at www.apsonoma.org.