Top story: Under-fire US college cancels China tour

Top story: Under-fire US college cancels China tour


norman lebrecht

October 30, 2019

Eastman School of Music has called off an orchestra tour of China after facing widespread criticism for agreeing to leave behind three South Korean students who were denied visas.

Last night, the Eastman Dean Jamal Rossi issued the following internal statement:

Dear Members of the Eastman Community,

I write with an update on the planned Eastman Philharmonia tour of China. I initially chose to proceed with this tour to preserve a transformative opportunity for eighty students. But even after I announced my decision last week, my colleagues and I continued to actively explore multiple avenues to obtain appropriate visas for every member of the ensemble. Ultimately, however, we were not successful.  Therefore, in consultation with many individuals, including University and Eastman leadership and our Chinese tour organizers, we have decided to postpone the tour until all members of the orchestra can participate.

I am grateful to the many individuals who took the time to share their thoughts about this matter. Regardless of individual positions, the overriding message for which we can all be grateful was a deep appreciation and respect for Eastman and a commitment to the standards and excellence that have marked our school for nearly 100 years.

For many years, Eastman musicians have performed in venues around the globe to a wide variety of audiences. It is my priority and personal commitment to continue to provide opportunities for Eastman students to share their music with the world. But I believe that given the particular circumstances of this tour, the best course of action for the Eastman community and the values we share is to wait until the Philharmonia can perform as one.


Jamal Rossi

This is an eminently sensible course of action, an honourable retreat in the nick of time. Dean Rossi is to be congratulated on changing his mind. Eastman is back on course, the music can continue.


  • Malcolm james says:

    It would be nice if they could have done the right thing without waiting for the public pressure and bad publicity, but still…

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Dean Rossi made the decision to go ahead with the tour while at the same time continuing to try to obtain visas for the 3 students. When that failed, he cancelled the tour after consultation with colleagues.

    If only he had…what if he had…why didn’t he ? I intend to stop second-guessing and salute his courage to make a just decision. Anyone care to join me ?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Absolutely, Dean. He took 24 hours for reflection and made the right decision second time round. Smart, and clean.

      • V.Lind says:

        Agreed. It takes guts for a public person to change his mind. Yes, he might have said he was wrong in the first instance, but I will sacrifice breast-beating for doing the right thing. The admission is implicit in the change of heart.

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Made the right decision or succumbed to pressure from alumni and the US musical community?

      Big difference.

    • K says:

      I will too. This is the right call.

    • Larry W says:

      I believe Dean Rossi ultimately made the right decision, but I do not care to join you in anything, Robert.

    • “Dean Rossi made the decision to go ahead with the tour while at the same time continuing to try to obtain visas for the 3 students. ”

      If that was really the plan then there was no need to make the previous “We’re still going!” announcement. All that did was lock down expectations for an outcome that wasn’t certain yet.

      They could have kept trying to get the visas all the same for another 5 days *without* the announcement, and then announce the final result, without creating the PR problem.

      If that was really the plan.

    • robert Durso says:

      I will join you when you do the right thing for Lara St. John and own your responsibility in second-guessing her with ” Who will they believe?”

  • Fan says:

    Get off your high horses, all of you. USA or Britain denies entry of foreign citizens for legitimate or arbitrary reasons all the time, otherwise you will not find 39 dead bodies in a truck in the parking lot. I know violin players are more precious than Vietnamese nail polishers in your eyes, but the nature of things is not different, and if it is, denying some violin students entry (as stupid as it is) is far less consequential for any one involved.

  • mary says:

    Remind me why this is an American thing?

    It’s a political spat between China and South Korea, tit-for-tat, you expel one of ours we expel one of yours, you ban one of ours we ban one of yours, it happens all the time.

    It’s not a racist thing, or a religious thing, or a gay thing, or a woman’s right thing, or a democracy thing, or a…

    So just because foreign nationals enrol in American schools, American schools now must intervene between different countries…on their own soil?

    What is this, the Eastman School of International Diplomacy? the Eastman School of International Peacekeepers? Is there a course at Eastman on how to clear minefields?

    • Anon says:

      I’d say they are being true to the Eastman mission statement:

      “The Eastman School of Music strives: To create a musical community that is rich with cultural, social, and intellectual diversity”

      Difficult to do if you allow bureaucrats to decide who plays in the student orchestra.

      • Enquiring Mind says:

        This has nothing to do with diversity; its a pissing contest between two countries that doesn’t even involve the US. The net result is to punish all of the students for a stupid reason that likely doesn’t impact the quality of the orchestra at all.

    • Mick the Knife says:

      I completely agree with you and said the same thing in an earlier post.

  • Greg says:

    The problem here is the school did not stand behind their own students as promised in their non discrimination and equal opportunity policy. They lost trust and faith from alumni, current and future students. Bad publicity…Big problem.

  • Doug says:

    If only he was as smart and intelligent as members of the NBA, he would have reflexively got on his knees and licked the boots of his PRC masters. Why, they could have even refused to play the American national anthem and chose to perform the Chinese while they proudly stood and saluted. /sarcasm

  • Brian Bell says:

    As an Eastman graduate, I applaud Dean Rossi for finally coming to the correct decision. I was not so impressed by his tone here. For me, his recovery here would have been complete with a message that highlighted the real reasons for the change of heart, served up with a good measure of humility. Then, in my eyes at least, he would have truly saved his face.

  • Jon H says:

    I think at my old university if the orchestra had toured, and two members couldn’t go because of visa purposes, it wouldn’t have hit any media circuit. Mainly because it wasn’t Eastman… and maybe also because social media wasn’t around. Nobody would’ve cared enough to write a story about it – and the orchestra would’ve made the trip. But because it’s Eastman in 2019, they have to be more sensitive.

  • anon says:

    Right decision. Dean Rossi deserves kudos for having the courage to reverse himself.

    The naivety of outlook on the venture is still profound. Hoping to provide a “transformative opportunity for eighty students” coupled with earlier statements including “Music is not a vehicle to divide people one from another, but instead it unifies, uplifts, and in fact, connects us as humans. Music transcends differences.” displays an incredibly innocent view of today’s world.

  • One does not cancel a tour until all available options have been exhausted. I am certain that Dean Rossi did everything possible to get his South Korean musicians into China. When that did not emerge, he correctly decided to withdraw from the trip. Negotiations must be kept private. In Detroit, we did not know until two weeks before our tour whether or not we would keep China in. The diplomatic channels worked, everyone got their visas and there were no problems. Going into detail in advance would not have accomplished anything other than to make thins more difficult.

  • Olivia says:

    Why couldn’t these 3 South Korean kids get visa? There are thousands South Korean in China!

  • drummerman says:

    Does anyone know if the Dean asked the opinions of the 3 Korean students, that is, did they want their classmates to go or to cancel? Just curious.

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    Fair enough, this Eastman episode is over. But given China’s well publicized disposition to make politically-driven demands on businesses, brands and associations (I mean, really, the list is enormous: major airlines, high tech firms, couturiers, sporting brands…), how does any institution such as Eastman go into a partnering arrangement like this without awareness of the potential strings attached — and being unprepared to walk away the moment those strings are pulled?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    This is the right decision, but I do feel sorry for the young orchestra members — for many, a once in a lifetime trip. But I never was much impressed by the fact that the shunned South Korean musicians were consulted by the school about the decision to go to China without them – I mean, really. What kid would want to say, sure, I prefer that you deprive my friends and colleagues of this opportunity. What a position to be put in, even for adults.

    I cannot agree that this entire matter was really just between China and South Korea. It is an American school, and this is an American orchestra.

  • Fliszt says:

    Well, I suppose Dean Rossi could have consulted the handbook “What to do when the Chinese Government says your Orchestra can playing in our Country but leave your South Korean Students at Home”. But, assuming that book to be long out of print, and you found yourself in the position of either disappointing 80 students who had their hearts set on this trip, or telling 3 South Korean Students what they already knew (that the Chinese Government is a bunch of pretty bastards, which they already knew, so they probably didn’t want to go anyway). Dean Rossi found himself between a rock and a hard place, so let’s not be so sanctimonious in judging his handling of the matter.

  • AJL says:

    “we have decided to postpone the tour until all members of the orchestra can participate.”

    Step 1: Face saving postponement
    Step 2: South Korean students, realizing their school does not support them, transfer to other schools
    Step 3: Triumphant rescheduled tour of China!

  • john says:

    You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

    Winston Churchill

    • CL9509 (Eastman alum) says:

      Unfortunately, this says it all.

    • Cyril says:

      Says the leader of the nation that invented concentration camps.

    • The View from America says:

      “You can always count on the Germans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

      — Neville Chamberlain

      “You can always count on the Brits to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

      — George Washington

  • Mark Starr says:

    The student musicians in the Eastman Philharmonia voted two-to-one to go to China anyway, despite the outrageous political action by the Chinese government banning entry of three Korean Student musicians solely because of their nationality. Thus, 66% of the students voted to throw their Korean colleagues under the bus, rather than take a principled stand against the vile Chinese action punishing three apolitical students for no legitimate reason. So much for the solidarity of musicians before a moral challenge. I can’t wait to hear the Eastman Philharmonia perform the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, especially the part about “All men are brothers.”

    Following the cancellation of the tour, the members of the Eastman Philharmonia might occupy their newly acquired free time to read the poem “And then they came for me” by the German pastor Martin Niemoeller. Ironically, this poem begins with the line: “First they came for the Communists; but I did not speak out, for I was not a Communist.”

    I wonder how many Korean music students are planning to apply for admission to the Eastman School of Music in 2020. More or less than last year?


    • Larry W says:

      MS, your comments are accuracy challenged. The banned students are from South Korea. The country is a democratic republic, not communist. The word menschen means people–it is not gender specific. And it’s more or fewer, not less. Your comment is more or less accurate. Mostly less.

      • Mark Starr says:

        When you check facts, it is always a good idea to know which “facts” to check.

        In no place in my post did I state or suggest that South Korea is a Communist nation. When I wrote “Ironically, [Martin Niemoeller’s] poem begins with the line ‘First they came for the Communists; but I did not speak out, for I was not a Communist,’ I was not alluding to either South Korea or North Korea. The irony that I mentioned alluded to China–which indeed is a Communist nation. Once Communists were hunted (in Niemoeller’s WWII Germany;) now Communists are hunters (banning South Korean students in American student orchestras.) Evidently, my ‘irony’ flew over your head unimpeded.

        You can translate ‘Menschen’ (the German word is capitalized, by the way) as the non-gender-specific word ‘people,’ if you like. However, many published English translations of both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony text and Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ use the word ‘men’– for example: the English translation of Schiller’s poem by William F. Wertz of the Schiller Institute (“Every man becomes a brother”); or the recent translation of Beethoven’s text by Michael Kay in program notes for a performance by a British orchestra and chorus (“All men want to emerge as brothers.”) Moreover, ‘Brüder’ is a very gender-specific word that means ‘brothers.” It makes sense to some translators to preserve the same gender in the same sentence.

        I doubt that anyone–except perhaps you–ever seriously considered the thought that either Beethoven or Schiller deliberately intended to exclude women by their use of ‘Menschen,’ any more than Thomas Paine did with his use of ‘Man’ in his ‘Rights of Man,’ or ‘Europa Universalis’ did in its ‘Rights of Man’ declaration; or any more than William F. Wertz, Michael Kay and I did by using the word ‘men.’ Just like the 66% of music students in the Eastman Philharmonia who voted to throw their South Korean colleagues under the bus in favor of a tour in China, you ignored the serious moral implications of this scandal in favor of some irrelevant nits–like missing the forest for the trees. Since you bothered to post a comment, I think your failure to speak out on this significant issue is morally challenged.

        However, your suggestion to use ‘fewer’ rather than “less” is well-taken.


        • Larry W says:

          Follow your own advice and check the facts. To begin, you referred to Korea instead of South Korea. It was that insult that led to my mentioning they are not communist. Only now, once corrected, do you say South Korea. I find it telling that you feel the need to capitalize communist.

          Regarding menschen, your clarification is necessary, if extremely verbose.

          Finally, you best check your facts before hurling unfounded insults. As a former member of the Eastman Philharmonia, I have every right to speak out and have done so repeatedly. If you had bothered, you would have found several comments posted on this issue spanning three articles on SD.

          Now, if you do not have anything of value to contribute, kindly just shut up and go away.

  • robert Durso says:

    He should have been outraged at himself for initially agreeing to send them without the three Korean students and apologize for that!.

  • PianoProf says:

    This is the same Dean that just hired a 3rd rate Piano Professor without a legally required search. Eastman is going down the tubes under his watch.

  • Ricky Irizarry says:

    Didn’t an “overwhelming majority” of the orchestra members vote in favor of touring leaving their Korean schoolmates behind? This situation also demands to be considered and commented upon. If true, it is tragic and it also tells that something very disturbing happens under the “veneer of exceptionalism” that these highly competitive schools despair to celebrate as a recruiting tool.

  • Wesley says:

    “…to leave behind three South Korean students who were denied visas.”

    At first I thought this meant that three South Korean students weren’t able to enter the US to study at Eastman. Thank God this didn’t happen because the US is short on Korean classical musicians.

  • I strongly suspect that the USA has denied far more artist visas than China. In fact, it has become a problem for arts organizations:

    Funny how we don’t hear much about that.

    I wonder how many children China has detained at its border and separated from their parents never to be returned. In the USA, it is thousands.

    Never mind. Let’s all howl with moral righteousness and jeer at Eastman and the Chinese…

    • Nat says:

      A quick search for “visa” reveals that similar issues (in the US and many other countries) have been covered on this blog many times. If we lived in China, we wouldn’t even be allowed to have this discussion.


    This happened to the Detroit Symphony on our China tour in 2017. Visas were denied several of our Korean members including our concertmaster! When we threatened to cancel the China part of the tour the visas were obtained and all the members of the orchestra were part of the China tour.