Howard's Blog

Airport coffee shop hostage, university meeting, Buddhist Temple!

  • April 11, 2012

I keep thinking that maybe once a week would be often enough for these reports, but it seems every few days there’s more to talk about, so today I just have to pester you again. First, being a Canadian, I have to tell you about the weather. This is truly the “city of eternal spring”. We had a couple of days of rain Friday and Saturday…very welcome in this part of the world which has been particularly dry for a couple of years. Since Monday we’ve had brilliant sunshine again, with highs in the mid 20s, cool nights…absolutely perfect weather.

On Friday I received an email from Olivia, my trusty assistant, informing me that the 3 hr. Mozart Requiem rehearsal I was to conduct on Saturday with the Higher Vocational College Choir on the Kunming campus had been cancelled due to exams, etc, etc. Having had a few such unpleasant surprises in the last few weeks, I decided it was time to flex my muscles a bit. So I urgently requested (OK, I demanded) a meeting with the top officials of Yunnan Arts University to discuss the entire situation regarding attendance, punctuality, etc, etc., and to convey my frustration at not being able to accomplish what I had been brought here to do. Well, the meeting was hastily arranged for Monday about midday on the new Chenggong campus. So I had the weekend to stew about this.

In the meantime, late on Sunday evening, our good friend Mike was due to arrive for his eagerly-awaited visit. Maggie and I headed to the airport only to learn that his flight from Beijing had been delayed an hour, so he would be arriving just after midnight. Having nothing else to do, we decided to have a cup of tea in the airport coffee shop. We sat there enjoying our tea, and when it came time to pay, I was dumbfounded to learn that the bill was 168 Yuan…that’s about $28 (I was anticipating the bill would be about 10-15 yuan). Knowing that the cab fare to and from the airport is about 25 yuan, I had equipped myself with about 125 yuan in cash, and had not bothered to bring my credit card (we’ve been leaving credit cards, bank cards, etc. at home recently…that way there’s no chance of pickpockets getting them). So, I found my self in the very awkward position of not having enough money to pay for our tea! Eventually, we decided that I would be a voluntary hostage and stay in the coffee shop while Maggie would go to meet Mike when he arrived, hoping he would have enough Chinese currency in his pocket to spring me out of captivity. In the meantime, it being after midnight, the coffee shop wanted to close! Eventually the manager came over to my table (accompanied by an airport police official, no less…thank goodness, he didn’t seem terribly concerned about this case of petty crime) and wrote “106” on a piece of paper. Well, I had that much, so I paid him and got out of there! It was by far the most embarrassing incident I’ve had to endure for quite some time. You can be assured that I am now always equipped with enough cash and/or a credit card!

Monday I took the 11am bus to Chenggong for my big meeting, thinking the meeting would take place about noon. Oh no, first there was lunch! A number of university officials and I got into 2 cars and drove several kms  to a private farm with a restaurant in the hills. Again the food was fabulous. And, gentle reader, it was here that I finally enjoyed marinated and roasted pigs’ feet for the first time! Actually the flavour is fabulous, not unlike our spare ribs, but with more spice! There’s not too much actual meat, but “all you can eat” fat and gristle! I had been eying this item on various restaurant menus, knowing it was only a matter of time until I would try them. This was the time, and I survived this latest gastronomic experience unscathed, quite able to walk away from the table unassisted!

Then, at 2pm, came the meeting. I was ushered into a very large board room (the gorgeous polished wood table had 20 armchairs around, with more chairs for assistants, etc. There were 8 people at this meeting, including the vice dean, the assistant dean, and the vice-president of Yunnan Arts University. My reason for requesting the meeting was to find out how things actually work at the university with regard to credits, attendance requirements, grading, that kind of thing. I had expressed my frustration with the choral situation, the poor attendance, and almost total lack of progress. The meeting began with the vice-president apologizing profusely and assuring me that, as of that morning, the choral programme (which, unbeknownst to me, had been voluntary) was now a credit course, and attendance was compulsory. My main concerns having been addressed, we then quickly moved on to other matters having to do with the development of the music faculty at YAU. I had a number of suggestions to make, all of which were enthusiastically received, including my idea that the university should do much more collaborative work with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra. Guess who was recruited to initiate negotiations with the KSO! I’m really hoping something will come of that.

I felt very good about that meeting, but of course the test of the pudding would come the next day (Tuesday) when I would meet the choir for the first time since the change in policy. Well, I can report that yesterday’s rehearsal was the best by far I’ve had with this choir. We were able to make significant progress with the Introitus and Kyrie from the Mozart Requiem. There are now 67 singers registered in the course, including quite a few vocal majors, and they were all present! They read reasonably well, and their sound is actually something I can work with. I told them that attendance at the remaining 10 rehearsals of the semester would constitute 50% of their grade, and the remaining 50% would be based on their singing for me in quartets at the end of term. We’ll have our hands full getting the Mozart Requiem and the Hallelujah Chorus ready for a June 19 performance, but I am, as they say, “cautiously optimistic”.

The La Traviata rehearsals on the old campus continue to be a complete joy. The soloists and the chorus are eager, well-prepared and remarkably skillful. Their Italian enunciation is improving, and it’s particularly rewarding for me to see how the principals’ interpretation is improving as I explain to them the intricacies of the evolving relationships between Violetta, Alfredo and Germont. This unanticipated part of my duties here is proving to be the highlight, at least so far.

Today Maggie, Mike and I headed out to the Black Dragon Pool and its famous Buddhist Longquan Temple. It’s a gorgeous park, with beautiful shaded walkways, flowers, ponds and pools, and even a 1200 year old plum tree! Here are a few photos of our excursion.

1200 year old plum tree with much younger man!

Entrance to Buddhist shrine

Chinese music and dancing in the park

Tonight, Maggie, Mike and I have been invited to another dinner with a number of university officials. I will have my camera with me, just in case there are some more culinary rarities to tell you about.


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