Howard's Blog

A Chinese Seventh Inning Stretch

  • June 10, 2012

Green Lake, 5 minutes from our apartment

This is one of the spectacular scenes that greets us whenever we stroll through the Green Lake park. We’ve grown to love this idyllic spot in the centre of the city.

Last time I checked in I told you all about my wonderful week of rehearsals with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra. Let’s pick it up there. Less than a week after the concert I got a call from Lu Hao Yin, the public relations manager with the orchestra. I’ve mentioned him before – he’s a violinist and the only English-speaking person in the orchestra’s administrative staff. He and the vice-director (the director was in Moscow on orchestra-related business) wanted to meet with me quite urgently. Well, we met the same day, and they invited me to conduct another concert on July 14! The programme was to include the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #2 (remember, I had just conducted the 1st a few days earlier). Maggie and I were both exhilarated and dismayed…the former by my being invited to return so soon (and to conduct another Rachmaninov piano concerto), and the latter by the prospect of delaying our return to Taipei and then to Canada by two weeks. We crunched the numbers, and soon realized that the cost of changing our airline tickets, renting our apartment for another two weeks, plus the modest honorarium which the orchestra is able to pay just added up to more than they can afford right now. So I had to reluctantly decline the invitation. We are coming home on July 8 as scheduled. Hao Yin emphatically reiterated that they want me to become much more involved with the orchestra on a regular basis (he’s even talking about my becoming the music director!), and again he said, as he had earlier, that whether or not this will be possible could well depend on who becomes the new General Secretary of the Central Chinese Communist Party!! The reform-minded candidate they’re rooting for has a culture-loving wife, and his being appointed could have major implications for the arts in China. Think about it, my future here with the orchestra could well be determined by who becomes the next uber-boss of the Chinese government! I’m chuckling even as I write this! So all this would seem to indicate that we will be back here at some point; in fact, we’re going to be discussing a return engagement for me next season and will try to coordinate the date with a couple of other irons I have in the Asian fire.

The university semester is quickly winding down. Much of June is taken up with exams. This week I will have my last rehearsals with both the choir and the orchestra. The orchestra’s final session on Thursday will be an informal “concert” where we will play all the way through the Beethoven Sym. No. 1 and the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. We have struggled valiantly with these works for 3 months, and it has been well worth the effort. Recently I walked into the rehearsal hall early and was delighted to see the principal flautist and the 2 clarinetists sitting there and working through a few passages in the Beethoven. Later when I reminded the orchestra that next Thursday would be my last time with them, they were genuinely disappointed, and a number of them asked whether I would be returning. So far nothing like that seems to be in the cards, but it was gratifying that the players have really enjoyed this experience. Their performance still leaves a great deal to be desired, but they have reached the point where they are able to really “make some music”. They’re listening to each other, they’re developing a sense of ensemble, they’re becoming aware of the contrapuntal “conversations” in this music, and they’re loving it! I’m amazed by the perceptive comments they make from time to time. After we had been rehearsing the Mozart recently, someone remarked that she thought “Mozart must have had the heart of a child”. How profoundly true! At the conclusion of last Thursday’s rehearsal, I was already flooded with requests for photos. I suspect that flood will become a full-blown tsunami this Thursday! I shall miss this orchestra more than I can say.

The choir too, while it has been a more difficult experience, is ending on a very positive note.  As you know, we’ve been making exceedingly slow (but steady, he said optimistically) progress on the Mozart Requiem. I quickly realized that we were not going to master the entire work, so I’ve been concentrating on the Introitus/Kyrie and the Offertorium (Domine Jesu). Both movements begin more or less homophonically, and lead into good solid fugues. Singing fugues is a whole new thing for these kids in their late teens. All they’d sung before was Chinese folk songs. Talk about baptism by fire! A couple of weeks ago, I divided them all into SATB quartets. For their final exam on June 19, they get 5 minutes per quartet to sing bits of the above-mentioned excerpts for me. That too will be worth a paragraph or two in these pages, I’ve no doubt.

My two conducting students have turned out to be an unexpected bonus in my university experience. I get half an hour twice a week with them. That’s not enough, to be sure, but they have managed to learn a fair bit about the art of conducting. Both of them were at my Kunming Symphony Orchestra concert 2 weeks ago, and they were consumed with curiosity about the Dvorak New World Symphony. I explained some of the trickier passages to them, and we would sing those bits or play them at the piano, and one of them would conduct. Great fun! I’m a subscriber to the Digital Concert Hall, the online service of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which allows me to watch and listen to many of the performances by this great orchestra. By now, there’s an archive of 150 concerts, all available to subscribers. So I invited my 2 conducting students to our apartment to spend a couple of hours watching the Berlin Philharmonic. First they insisted on taking Maggie and me out for dinner. We went to the Jade Garden, a beautiful restaurant overlooking Green Lake (it’s become one of our favourite eateries), and had a fabulous 7 course dinner.

My two conducting students

The guy on the left ( more or less unpronounceable name and I have no idea how to write it!) is a percussion major. I think he has the makings of being a fine conductor. Andrew, on the right, is a graduate student in composition, and passionately interested in conducting.

After dinner we spent a couple of hours at our apartment watching and listening to the Berliners. I showed them videos of Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel. I found it interesting that the “Dude” is the one conductor they had heard of! They were transfixed! What a wonderful teaching tool the internet has become!

And then of course there’s the Verdi La Traviata project. We’re now into the home stretch, and I must say it’s all becoming more and more exciting. I’m now rehearsing 9 hours a week with the soloists and chorus and all the hard work is really starting to pay off. The singers have mastered their roles amazingly well, and now we’re into polishing everything for the 2 performances on June 22 and 26. The local print and electronic media have also twigged to the notion that a major Italian opera is about to be performed for the first time in Yunnan Province. Yunnan has a population of 45 million, and La Traviata is about to get its local premiere! From time to time I just have to give my head a shake!, the website which is must reading for every foreigner in Kunming, is also promoting the concerts. The fact that admission will be free will, we hope, attract  large audiences. In the middle of last Wednesday evening’s rehearsal, Prof. Chen, the director of Wenhua College (he’s also a conductor and was to have conducted the La Traviata performances until I was officially invited to do so) unexpectedly showed up. He was obviously very pleased by what he heard, and promptly told me that the following day I was not to take the bus to the Chenggong campus (about an hour long trip) as I always do, but that a private car and driver would pick me up and drive me! I tried to explain that the bus is quite comfortable and there was really no need for this. But he would not be dissuaded, so the next day I rode in solitary splendour in the back of an air-conditioned van! Mind you, later I had to take the bus back to Kunming! Guess I wasn’t rated high enough for a round trip! Actually, Wenhua College is in the process of upgrading its status to that of an independent degree-granting institution. Apparently these La Traviata performances are enhancing the college’s bid!

You meet the most fascinating people in this town. Last night we had dinner at Lost Garden, another of our favourite haunts (beautiful, quiet outdoor terrace on the second floor) where me met a guy about my age from Tasmania who’s been traveling alone through China for the past month. At another table was a young couple from Tennessee who are just completing a 2 year stint studying in Kunming. A couple of weeks ago we met Michael. He’s Chinese, born in Australia, raised in California, lived in Japan for a number of years, now lives in Kunming with his wife and 2 kids, where he teaches graduate students in economics and law at Yunnan University. (Oh yes, he’s also a not-so-distant relative of the late Sun Yat Sen, who was largely responsible for the overthrow of the last Chinese dynasty about 100 years ago.) Michael described Kunming as a huge Hollywood movie set. All the buildings, all the trappings are in place, but there’s basically nobody who’s really trained to perform the tasks called for in a large city. And this is not unique to Kunming – it applies most everywhere in China. It’s all completely mind-boggling! Just when you think you’re starting to figure a few things out, you realize you still don’t understand much, if anything at all.

The contrasts are stark. There are the modern, luxurious, ostentatious downtown office buildings…

Office building in downtown Kunming

…and there are the gut-wrenching displays of grinding poverty…

An elderly couple on the street. She can barely walk, but she's holding a tin cup for contributions. He's blind and is playing and singing.

Change is everywhere. Shops are closing and being replaced by newer, different shops on a regular basis. For example, for the past 3 months we’ve been buying some of our fruit at this market very close to our place…

Fruit market. You're likely to see one every 5 or 6 blocks in Kunming.

Last week we discovered to our amazement, that it looked like this…

Our former fruit market!

Every day brings new experiences, new joys, new challenges. Every night we flop into bed, completely exhausted. But we’re so glad we’re here, and while we’re looking forward very much to going home (with a week in Taipei to see our granddaughters…and their parents too!), we know we’re going to miss this place terribly. Often Maggie and I look at each other and say, “Just imagine if we had decided not to do this”! But the countdown has begun. Three weeks from today we take a flight to Taipei and a week after that we’ll be at home in Waterloo. In the meantime, I’m sure we’re in for several dozen more delights, surprises, and challenges. As I used to say on the CBC…stay tuned!



1 Comment on A Chinese Seventh Inning Stretch

  • labshoff says:
    June 10, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!
    Have a great last few weeks. Your cheeks will be sore smiling for all of the pictures!
    See you soon.


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