Howard's Blog

Farewell to the Middle Kingdom!

  • June 29, 2012

As the doomsday preacher puts it ever so subtly, “The end is near!” After 4 momentous, experience-laden months filled with boundless pleasures and thrills and surprises, and a few setbacks and challenges, we are about to turn the page on what has easily been the most unusual chapter of our life so far. On Sunday we fly out of Kunming’s spanking new airport (it opened just yesterday and is heralded as one of the largest and most advanced airports in all of China) to Taipei, Taiwan to spend a week with Anthony and Vanessa and our 2 lovely granddaughters. Then, on July 8, a very long day will bring us home to Canada.

In my last missive, I described the 1st of our two La Traviata  performances. The 2nd (both dress rehearsal and performance) was much easier on my nerves. All of my singers remained on the scene throughout and indeed sang exceedingly well. My alternate Violetta who is considerably more experienced than the first one, had memorized all her big arias, so she was able to move about onstage and interact with the other singers, with the result that they too loosened up as never before.

Alfredo and Violetta rehearsing an onstage cuddle

After having survived one performance, everyone was much more confident and secure for the 2nd. And in fact it was even more successful than the first. This was Violetta in Part One, dressed in a stunning red gown as befits any self-respecting courtesan!

Violetta (aka Lisa) in Part One

And in Part Two, it was a white gown, symbolizing both purity and death!

The two ill-fated lovers giving it their all!

The hall erupted when it was over, copious flowers were presented (with all the lilies, our apartment again has a “mortuaryesque” ambience), and speeches (many and long) were delivered, all of them effusive in their praise for all the performers. Remember that  Kunming is a very long way (both geographically and culturally) from the major centres like Shanghai and Beijing. So this La Traviata was far more important to the university and Yunnan province than I had imagined. The photos and handshakes went on and on and on…

Post-performances festivities

After the concert, Maggie and I were invited by President Chen of Wenhua College to join him and representatives from the Kunming Symphony Orchestra for lunch the next day in order to initiate discussions about a subsequent project, quite possibly a fully staged opera with sets and costumes and an orchestra. It is simply assumed that I will be conducting! During lunch, Pres. Chen announced there would be a banquet tonight for Maggie and me. The entire La Traviata cast, soloists and chorus, as well as a gaggle of university officials are being invited. Lunch having been completed, Maggie and I boarded the bus for one last ride to the Chenggong campus. The Yunnan Arts University dean and vice-dean wanted to do a review with me of the past semester and to hear any suggestions I might have for the future. The meeting was most cordial. We were told that the phones were ringing off the hook from top officials in the university as well as the Yunnan government, all of whom were ecstatic over this unique cultural event in their bailiwick. I had a number of ideas as to how they might enhance their programme and modus operandi, all of which were duly noted. During the meeting I was told that the move to Chenggong has had a significant negative impact on the university. The simple fact is that faculty members don’t want to move away from the city. So when classes are done for the day, the Chenggong campus is dead. There are no recitals or concerts, the performing facilities not yet having been completed. They (Yunnan Arts University) are not alone in their plight, however. Every university in Kunming (there must be at least a dozen) is being relocated to some outlying community, a number of them to Chenggong, a city which in due time will have a population of about 1 million.

However, I was told in no uncertain terms that this is merely a transition phase and that the situation will improve. I was also given a carte blanche invitation to return at any time.  It’s nice to know that the option is there if we should decide to return. The YAU meeting concluded with another photo op!

The fetching lady above is my boss Miss Lee, the Dean of Music. I love my work!

l to r – Miss Lee (the dean), Maggie, Mr. Zu (the vice-dean) and me

This morning, Lu Haoyin, the “Dean of Public Relations” with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra, drove me to his father’s apartment in north Kunming. His father, Lu Dee, aged 78, is one of Yunnan’s most prominent composers, specializing in the music of the 26 minorities in Yunnan. His work reminds me very much of how Bartok and Kodaly were “rediscovering” Hungarian folk music during the last century. He’s a charming man and we spent a delightful couple of hours talking about music and contemporary composition techniques in China and internationally.

Lu Dee, one of Yunnan’s senior composers, in his Kunming apartment

l to r – HD, Lu Haoyin, Lu Dee

A delicious lunch with Lu Dee, his wife, and Lu Haoyin

He played recordings of some of his music for me and gave me full score copies of 2 of his most recent compositions. He’s a thoroughly civilized man, and I enjoyed his company very much. I was intrigued by how he quizzed me about Tan Dun (of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” film score fame) and what I thought of his music. He holds Tan Dun in high regard, but is afraid that TD is becoming too “western” in his approach. All very interesting!

Then came tonight and the banquet! As I mentioned earlier, we knew that everyone involved in the La Traviata production had been invited; however, given that it’s end of term, we wondered how many would actually show up. Well, they were ALL there, 7 tables of 12 people each. And what a happy, celebratory occasion it was! Maggie and I were feted most royally and there were a number of gifts from individual singers as well as from Wenhua College. (We are coming home with more or less a truckload of Pu’er tea, one of Yunnan’s prized exports.)

La Traviata soloists, producer, accompanists and conductor!

The conductor with his two stalwart accompanists

The conductor with his Violetta 1 and Alfredo.

Notice Violetta’s makeup. She had another gig later tonight…had to sing at the Military Academy. I gave her a smart salute as she left the dinner! Oh, and Violetta 2 didn’t show, either because she’s not part of Wenhua College (everyone else in the cast is), or perhaps because diva rivalries are as alive here as anywhere.

The chorus members, many of whom are graduating, were having a blast. Maggie and I posed endlessly…

One table of singers posing with Maggie and me.

The toasts (orange juice and Sprite) went on for a very long time, led off of course by President Chen…

Proposing a toast “to the future”

The dinner itself was a spectacular 15 course feast..

Banquet, Chinese-style!

Eventually, reluctantly, amidst endless hugs (all of these lovely people are now our friends), we made our way out into another glorious summer evening. The nights here are gorgeous…warm, but never oppressive. This truly is Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring!

So, that’s it. Except for some shopping tomorrow (accompanied by our trusty Olivia, who knows how to avoid tourist traps), we are done here. It’s a very strange blend of emotions we are experiencing – joy at the prospect of seeing family and friends again very soon and being in our own home, but genuine regret at the prospect of leaving this place we have called home for 4 months and which we have grown to love. What of the future? Well, here’s the situation. Yunnan Arts University as well as Wenhua College would like us to return “as soon as possible”, the Kunming Symphony Orchestra is breathing down my neck with all kinds of proposals for the next several seasons, and the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu would like me to conduct and do masterclasses, all within the next 12 months! So we have some decisions to make. We’ve decided to return home, let some time pass, and then assess what all this has meant to us and to what extent we want to continue this Chinese adventure. We do know that we’ll be in Taipei next December. I’ve been invited to conduct the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a December 24 concert in Taipei’s gorgeous National Concert Hall. (The programme – Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Poulenc’s Gloria, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and 2 of the medley suites from The Many Moods of Christmas). The delightful side benefit of that gig is that we get to spend Christmas with Anthony and Vanessa and the girls. It may well be that we’ll spend some in Kunming and/or Chengdu prior to starting rehearsals in Taipei. If we do, we will likely return to Chengdu and Kunming for at least a couple of months next spring to finish what we start in the fall.

If there is one reality that has all but overwhelmed us time and again, it is the fact that China is a great hulking, implacable behemoth of a magnitude we had not even begun to imagine prior to our arrival here and which we can scarcely fathom even now. The passion for western culture is breathtaking. And because so many things are happening in this part of China (Yunnan) for the first time, there is a kind of “wild west” mentality here – you make up the rules as you go. Mostly, anything goes! China has a population 40 times that of Canada, so you can be sure there’s a constant jockeying for influence and power.  There is and will continue to be flux, both advances and setbacks, for the foreseeable future. To be in a position to observe and even contribute in some small way to this maelstrom is a rare privilege and opportunity.

Thank you for following our adventures these 4 months. Your many comments and private emails are much appreciated. If you’re a “subscriber” to this blog, you may just get a follow-up post now and again.

Over and out!




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