The Philadelphia Orchestra is now in China, beginning a three-week tour of Asia. It is its 11th tour China, since it became the first American orchestra to do so in 1973. One of the few musicians who have been on every Asian tour for the last 43 years is first violinist Herb Light. He is the oldest, and longest-tenured musician in the orchestra.
He will also soon be the subject of a documentary film.
Light won his audition to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1961, while he was still studying at the Philadelphia Music Academy (now the University of the Arts).
He never left, and he never finished college. He moved to the first violin section, and in the 1970s was offered the concertmaster job at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He decided to stay with the Fabulous Philadelphians.
“We were like the New York Yankees. It was the place to be,” said Light. “Contractually it was always – until very recently – among the leaders. The offer from Pittsburgh at that time, with a bonus, was 50% of the minimum in Philadelphia. Not only was the orchestra always great, the pay was in the top two or three. That’s the key.”
Since the orchestra emerged from bankruptcy four years ago, it is no longer in the top five for musician pay.
Light was born in Philadelphia, and wanted nothing more than to play in the orchestra. “It was the greatest moment of my life when I joined,” he said. He’s played under the batons of Ormandy, Muti, Dutoit, and even under Stokowski when he returned to the podium as a guest conductor.
He is among a shrinking number of working musicians who were part of the original visit to China in 1973, one that changed international diplomacy with that Communist country.
“The country was totally different. It was barren,” said Light. “We flew into the Shanghai airport, and it reminded me of an airport in a small Midwest city.”
That first trip by the orchestra is believed to have sparked an interest in Western classical music in China, which has since flooded the market with Chinese talent.
Light’s son, Jonathan Light, an independent filmmaker making a living largely on educational and corporate films, is making an documentary, “A Dream Fulfilled,” about his father and the golden age of the orchestra.
“Just playing under Ormandy, and being part of the Philadelphia sound at its peak at the Academy of Music,” said Light. “In classical music circles that era is legendary.”
Jonathan Light soon realized the film was going to be less about his father, and more about the Orchestra. In on-camera interviews, the elder Light was more of an ensemble player than a soloist.
“He’s so not interested in making at all about himself, and that speaks to who he is,” said Jonathan. “He wants to make sure the orchestra is shown in a wonderful light, and the rich history is brought to the fore.”
Both of the Lights – Jonathan and Herb – say the orchestra is very different now. For one thing, young musicians come in playing at an extremely high level. No longer is there an apprentice system where musicians can work their way up the ranks.
Jonathan Light hopes ” A Dream Fulfilled,” will be finished next year. That depends in part on funding for the project.