Howard's Blog

A Week with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra – Shangri-La comes to Kunming!

  • May 27, 2012

Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Although it is set in the mountains of Tibet, and is now being exploited for all its worth by the tourist industry, the term Shangri-La itself has come to be synonymous with paradise. Hence my title today. I have just completed a week of paradise with the Kunming Nei Er Symphony Orchestra! There is much to tell you!

First a little background. When I first conducted the orchestra almost 13 years ago, it was known as the Kunming Symphony Orchestra. Some of you who were with Maggie and me for the International Festival of the Arts at that time will recall that what the orchestra lacked in skill, it more than made up in enthusiasm. What I didn’t know then was that there was another, better orchestra in Kunming, the Song and Dance Orchestra, basically a theatre orchestra. About a year and a half ago, it was decided by government fiat that Kunming, a city of 6 million, really needed only one professional orchestra. And so the two organizations were “merged”, which is to say the Song and Dance Orchestra ceased to exist (btw, the Song and Dance Theatre now performs with recorded music, and, not surprisingly, there has been a dramatic decline in attendance). At the time of the merger, the name of the orchestra was officially changed to “Kunming Nei Er Symphony Orchestra”, after Nei Er (1912-1935), a prominent pro-Maoist composer who is best known for having composed the Chinese national anthem. All players in both orchestras were reauditioned (behind a screen, to ensure as objective a result as possible) and the players were graded A or B. The A players receive a higher salary and get to play the choice gigs (I was happy to learn my concert was one of those), while the B players play other less desirable concerts, and of course they’re available for A concerts which require exceptionally large forces. There are about 150 players in the organization, and there is still some resentment in the ranks, particularly among the B players.

For my concert, I had 12 1st violins, 8 2nds, 8 violas, 6 cellos, 4 double basses, double winds (including piccolo and English Horn), 3 horns, (I should have had 4, but one player had recently broken some ribs), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba, and 5 (!) percussionists (for Chan Ka Nin’s East Meets West). I was told the average salary for these players is 2500 RMB per month…that’s about $400. And this is considered to be a full-time job!  This is not enough to live on, so the players teach during their evenings off and on Sundays, or they marry someone with money! To give you an example, Maggie and I were in front of the rehearsal hall one afternoon waiting to hail a cab to take us back to our apartment when we saw the principal flautist (a beautiful young woman and a very fine player) wheel out of the parking lot in a spanking new red Ferrari! She had obviously married well, her husband being either one of the new rising class of capitalists or a government official. As far as we (Maggie!) could tell, she was the only woman in the orchestra (about 60% of the players are female) with a genuine Chanel handbag!

For months I had been anticipating my guest conducting engagement with this orchestra. We had attended two of their performances, and found the orchestra to be much improved. We were also delighted to discover that quite a number of the players remembered us from 1999. So the entire rehearsal process was a most congenial experience. The rehearsal hall is excellent with exactly the right acoustics…not too dry, not too resonant.

Kunming Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal

We started at 9:30am and worked until 11:40 with a 10′ break. Then, after lunch we started again at 1 and rehearsed until 3:15pm. This went on for 4 days.

Kunming Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal

Monday was a day to get to know the orchestra from the inside, so to speak. Where were the strengths and weaknesses? These became apparent quickly enough. We began with the 1st 2 movements of the Dvorak New World Symphony. Then we had a go at Chan Ka Nin’s new piece, East Meets West. As is often the case with new music, at first the players were baffled, bemused, maybe even a trifle annoyed. By Tuesday afternoon they were starting to “get it”. The piece, by the way, is so very imaginative, innovative and yet also accessible, once the orchestra knows how to play it. The combination of western and Chinese musical idioms is delightful, and at times quite humorous. And of course we started working on the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1. It’s a challenge to work on a concerto when the soloist is not there; there are so many aspects that depend on how the soloist wants to play the piece. However, there were a lot of orchestral challenges we were able to overcome during those first three days. On Wednesday, after my orchestral rehearsal ended, the soloist, Sun Jingya, arrived (she and her mother had  flown in from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, about an hour and half flight north of Kunming). She’s 26 years old, has studied at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu (Master’s degree), as well as the Royal College of Music, Manchester, England. She’s won all kinds of prizes and is now teaching piano at her alma mater in Chengdu. She is, in a word, FABULOUS! A wisp of a girl, she packs a punch at the piano that is almost unbelievable. Incredible brio and temperament combined with the most sensitive, limpid musicality. We met in the rehearsal room Wednesday so I could hear her play alone and so we could decide on certain matters of tempo and transition, etc., before the orchestra would join us the following day. We clicked immediately! We agreed on basic tempi and just worked out the various transitions that are the defining moments of any performances of large-scale works. (I think it was Bruno Walter who said, “By their transitions ye shall know them!”)

Howard and Jingya getting acquainted

The Buddhist tradition holds to the notion of reincarnation. Well, listening to Jingya, I’m inclined to think the Buddhists are right; Rachmaninov has come back to us in the form of Sun Jingja, a 26 year old woman from Chengdu. I wish you could hear those thundering octaves which begin the concerto and which keep recurring again and again. But her pianistic arsenal doesn’t end there. The 2nd movement calls for the most delicate, sensitive gossamer touch. Jingya feels this music very deeply. Her adagio brought tears to my eyes. That first rehearsal with just Jingya and me was a revelation. She told me quite matter-of-factly that during her student years (teens to her mid twenties) she routinely practiced 8 hours a day. (This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book The Outliers, in which he posits that, regardless of the field of endeavor, whether music or sports or science, etc, etc, the top achievers have put in about 10,000 hours of work during their formative years. Methinks Jingya has passed the 10,000 hour threshold some time ago!)

Knowing that Thursday would be my only day of real work with Jingya and the orchestra, I had concentrated on Dvorak and Chan Ka Nin the 1st 3 days. Well, everything went very smoothly indeed on Thursday. It’s enormously helpful when a conductor and a soloist have a definite “concept” of how a piece should go. Fortunately, Jingya and I agreed on most everything (her slow tempi were somewhat slower than what I had envisioned, but both she and the orchestra were able to maintain the musical tension in the line), and the rehearsals were a dream! Apres rehearsal of course means dinner.  Jingya, her mother, Chan Ka Nin, his wife Alice Ho and Maggie and I repaired to The Jade Garden, a wonderful restaurant right next to Green Lake, a 10 minute walk from our apartment.

L to R - Howard, Jingya, Maggie, Alice, Ka Nin

During the course of our dinner, I asked Jingya about Lang Lang, the young Chinese piano virtuoso who has been taking the international world by storm. Jingya sniffed and said that the “informed” musical community in China has more or less dismissed him as little more than a circus act. When he plays in Chengdu, the hall is filled to capacity, but not with pianists! They stay away in droves, waiting instead for real musicians! Jingya’s favorite pianist, by the way, is Murray Perahia! Excellent taste, Jingya! (Remember not so long ago when you couldn’t get a ticket to hear Lang Lang play the Beethoven piano concertos with the Toronto Symphony?)

A 10 meter high poster in front of Kunming Theatre, announcing our concert. Notice the CN Tower and the pagoda!

The dress rehearsal in the Kunming Theatre in downtown Kunming went off more or less without incident. That is, once we had located the piano! Our rehearsal started with Ka Nin’s piece, and I simply (stupidly!) assumed that the stagehands (what stagehands?) would roll the piano out onto the stage for the concerto (which was 2nd on the programme). Well, first we had to go looking for the stagehands who then went looking for the piano which had been brought in especially for this concert. Said instrument having been hunted down, there now followed a l..e..n..g..t..h..y discussion about where exactly to position the piano. You see, there’s a pit under the apron of the stage, and the fear was that that part of the stage might not be sturdy enough to support the piano. I had visions of Jingya, the 9 ft. Steinway and me tumbling into the pit halfway through the slow movement of the concerto. However, the structural engineering gods were smiling and everything transpired without any mishaps. The piano. by the way, was terrific…a huge sound that could also “sing”…deep, resonant bass…beautiful bell-like mid to upper register…Jingya loved it and that’s important!

Dress Rehearsal in the Kunming Theatre - piano not yet in place!

Then came the concert itself on Friday evening. First challenge…finding a stagehand with a key to unlock my dressing room! Other than that, everything came off like clockwork. Ka Nin’s piece was a huge success with the audience. By the time of the concert, the orchestra had really taken to it as well…nice to see! The concerto too came off quite well. Jingya was brilliant; there were a few hiccups in the orchestra, however. I should explain that the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1 is a fiendishly difficult work; that’s one of the main reason you don’t hear it nearly as often as nos. 2 and 3. Rachmaninov wrote it in 1891 when he was 18. 26 years later, in 1917, after having composed the 2nd and 3rd concertos, he undertook an extensive revision of the work, so in a sense it can be considered his 4th concerto. The revision however has lost none of the original youthful vivacity and impetuosity. Some of the licks in the orchestra, especially in the 3rd movement, are daunting even for the great orchestras. But we managed quite well, and the audience’s response was ecstatic. Jingya was called back again and again and finally played an encore, an achingly beautiful rendition of Traeumerei by Schumann. Rarely have I heard such soft playing and never have I heard so quiet an audience in China!

During the intermission a million photos were taken backstage…especially of Jingya, yours truly, and Philippe Rheault, the newly-appointed Canadian Consul-General in Chongqing, who had come to Kunming especially for the occasion.

L to R - Philippe Rheault, Sun Jingya, Howard Dyck

The 2nd half of the concert was entirely taken up with the Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”). I couldn’t help but think that Dvorak’s new world was, of course, the United States; here we were bringing this great masterpiece to yet another new world. Folks, this one rocked, it sizzled. In the finale, I think we did structural damage to the building! The audience roared their bravos (virtually unheard of here), I was inundated with flowers (half of which were mysteriously spirited away by one of the violinists who obviously needed them more than I did!). The players were over the moon, and I had my picture taken over and over and over again, alone and with most members of the orchestra!

I was famished, but not for long. The orchestra management took us out for a lovely dinner, one of the best we’ve had yet. The piece de resistance was duck tongue!

Duck tongue - a local delicacy! Quite delicious, really!

The group (Jingya and her parents, a number of representatives from the orchestra, Chan Ka Ni, Alice Ho, Philippe Rheault, Maggie and I) was most convivial.

After a long series of toasts, I was invited to return to conduct the orchestra again. Needless to say, I was thrilled!

A lavish, multi-course post-concert feast!

I must tell you about the gentlemen in the striped shirt in the photo above. He’s Jingya’s father, and he’s a full-time piano tuner at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, where Jingya teaches. Years ago, he went to the Hamburg Steinway factory in Germany to improve his skills. Steinway were so impressed, they wanted him to stay in Germany. But China is his home and he returned to Chengdu. This time the Beijing Steinway division tried to lure him north to the capital, but again he demurred, preferring to stay in his hometown of 10,000,000. He’s a lovely man, and he speaks some English.

Dinner went on for some time. Eventually, one more photo,

L to R – Philippe Rheault, Maggie, Howard, Jingya, Alice, Ka Nin

…and it was time to say goodbye. Chan Ka Nin and Alice, who have become dear friends during these past 2 weeks, took an early flight the next morning to Myanmar where they will spend about a week before continuing their trip to southeast Asia and Australia. Philippe also had an early flight back to Chongqing. Jingya and her parents were going to do a bit of sight-seeing in the area before heading back to Chengdu today. Jingya is going to make some enquiries on my behalf at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu. She suggested there may be a possibility for me to do some guest conducting, masterclasses, etc, at this internationally-recognized institution. Subject to what Jingya is able to arrange, we may in fact take a day or 2 in June and fly to Chengdu to check things out.

We have the weekend to relax and then I resume my teaching and conducting at the Yunnan Arts University on Tuesday. In just under 4 weeks I’ll be conducting the first of 2 performances of Verdi’s La Traviata. Never a dull moment!






1 Comment on A Week with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra – Shangri-La comes to Kunming!

  • operajoseph says:
    May 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks Howard – a truly wonderful post! Your comment of “…Buddhists are right, Rachmaninoff has come back to us in the form of Sun Jinja…” Wow, talk about high praise!!! Now I wish I could hear her. It’s Sunday morning in TO as I read this, and the food pictures of the banquet is making me hungry :)



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