Howard's Blog

Flotsam & Jetsam from the Good Ship (aka Chinese Junk) “H.M.DYCK”

  • May 16, 2012

It was with some trepidation that I decided to invoke a maritime metaphor in the title of my latest post from land-locked Yunnan Province. However, I was emboldened upon reflecting that Austria, a similarly ocean-free domain, boasts its very own navy! So here goes! To give some legitimacy to all these sea-faring notions, perhaps I should begin with a photo of a memorable boat ride we took just over 3 weeks ago during our Dali/Lijiang exposition (which Maggie has chronicled extensively in one of her posts). Dali (in the mountains, about 150 kms northwest of Kunming) is located on the shores of beautiful Lake Erhai.

This elderly woman does as many as 10 of these hour-long boat excursions every day

As this elderly woman rowed us out into the lake, we approached a fishing boat where the fishermen were being assisted by a group of cormorants (ancient tradition, by the way) who would periodically  dive down into the water, catch a fish (up to about a foot long) and deposit it into the boat, waiting eagerly for a small morsel of food as a reward.

Fisherman with cormorant

As we headed back to shore, our lady rower began singing in a beautiful high soprano.  In her repertoire was a Chinese version of Frere Jacques (in Chinese it’s about a tiger). We of course joined in and dazzled most of southwest China with a rollicking rendition of this well-known round. All very great fun!

Now to more recent events. The weather here is spectacular. Most days are sunny and warm, with highs frequently hitting 29 or 30. But the nights are cool with temperatures  in the mid teens. Our apartment on the 5th floor is exceptionally well ventilated, and we have no need of air conditioning or even a fan. We’ve had a bit of rain in the last several days, but not enough to alleviate the drought. However, the rainy season (June-August) is fast approaching, so everyone is hoping that this year there will be some serious rainfall. In the meantime, just looking at the shrubs and flowers in the city, you’d never guess that it’s actually very dry. For example, this is what greets us as we enter the old campus of Yunnan Arts University!

A riot of bougainvillea everywhere in Kunming

I believe I had mentioned in my last post that I would be meeting with officials of the Kunming Symphony Orchestra. I arrived at the appointed time and was ushered into the teaching studio (on the 6th floor, of course!) of Lu Hao Yin. He’s a violin teacher who used to play in the orchestra and now holds the title of “Dean of Public Relations” (code for Marketing Manager). We were joined by the vice-director of the orchestra as well as an Erhu virtuoso and his daughter (who, it turned out, speaks English exceedingly well, and has just completed her first year in Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver! Small world!). After admiring Hao Yin’s beautiful 20 year old  violin (built by a Beijing instrument maker), we repaired to a pub on the ground floor for a beer. When these people order beer, they don’t fool around! A CASE of cold ones arrived on our table! Fortunately, the alcohol content is very low, so you have to quaff an awful lot before you feel any effects. I informed my hosts that, given my teaching/rehearsal schedule next day, I would not be participating in any serious drinking bout. Soon the talk turned to business. As I had suspected, Hao Yin wanted to talk about my possible continuing relationship with the orchestra. The orchestra wants to branch out and perform throughout China (they’ve toured extensively in Yunnan, being the only professional orchestra in the province) as well as internationally. They’re also interested in introducing what turns out to be a remarkably rich Yunnanese compositional heritage to China and the world. They seem to think I may be able to help them in some way. We’ll see. Hao Yin did caution me that my continuing role with the orchestra might well depend on who becomes the next Chairman of the Central Committee in Beijing! I was shocked at how much control over many aspects of chinese life is exerted from the very top. The recent ouster of Bo Xilai, mayor of Chongqing, following the murder of a British businessman (you probably read about this in the last several months) has had some definite ramifications among the highest government echelons in Beijing. It just may be that the reformist/progressive elements may be on the ascendency. The new Chairman will be elected/appointed/anointed (I’m not sure which applies) this fall. One of the leading candidates apparently is married to a singer, and so the hope is that the new regime may be more favorably disposed towards the arts. I stifled the urge to brag about    our piano-playing, culture-loving prime minister! I do find it mildly amusing to think that my future with the Kunming Symphony Orchestra may be determined or at least influenced by the new Chairman of the Chinese Communist Central Committee!

Speaking of the orchestra, I’m looking forward to finally beginning rehearsals with them next week. After months of sitting hunched over the scores, I’m more than ready to go. Chan Ka Nin, the Hong Kong-born U of T composition teacher who has written “East Meets West” especially for this concert, arrived here on Monday together with his wife. Maggie and I met them for dinner that evening and were delighted to discover that his wife is none other than Alice Ho (also born in HK), herself a composer of considerable reputation. They’re charming people and we’re looking forward to getting to know them much better during their stay here. In fact, we’re having dinner with them again tonight.

At Yunnan Arts University, my music-making continues to be a fascinating, challenging, varied, but mostly satisfying experience. The Chenggong campus choir seemed to have some kind of epiphany yesterday. We got all the way through the Mozart Requiem “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue, notes and Latin words too!! This, folks, is a major triumph! What’s more, they seemed really pleased. We then capped that off with 15 minutes of the Hallelujah Chorus. We got through the first 12 measures, and again they were thrilled. We won’t do a performance, but we’ll learn as much of the Requiem as we can. I’m just delighted to be able to introduce this choral masterpiece to young people who had never heard it or of it until now. The orchestra too is a joy. We’re through the 1st 3 movements of the Beethoven Symphony #1, and we’ve worked through movements 2 and 3 of the Mozart G+ Violin Concerto. I think we’ll manage it all by the end of June and might even venture an informal “performance”. It’s enormously satisfying to walk in the hallways of YAU and hear people singing or whistling themes from the Beethoven and Mozart.

My conducting class has turned out to be far more rewarding than I had anticipated. The only pity is that I’m restricted to 2 half-hour sessions a week. I started out with 2 students (my timpanist in the university orchestra, and Andrew, the composition graduate student whom I’ve mentioned in these pages before). However, from time to time, the percussion professor also drops by, as does a Shanghai Conservatory conducting graduate who now conducts a company choir (you guessed it…Chinese folks songs) here in Kunming. They’re all very keen to discover that there’s actually a method to proper conducting! Last Thursday, 2 rather good-looking young women were waiting for me when I arrived for the conducting class. Their English is limited, but I was able to extract from them that they wished to join my conducting class. Turns out they’re friends and former classmates of the aforementioned Andrew. One of them, a YAU graduate with majors in Dance and Musicology, proceeded to tell me that I am “very beautiful”. My inherent politeness prevented me from disabusing her of this opinion, but dear Andrew, sensing my discomfiture, quickly whispered to her that perhaps she had chosen an unfortunate adjective for the male of the species. Whereupon she promptly revised her evaluation, now pronouncing me “extremely handsome, and so young!” If this young lady isn’t careful she’s going to end up with an A in conducting!

Not wanting to burden you with too many details, I think you should know that the Higher Vocational College Choir (that’s the 170 voice ensemble on the old campus) isn’t working out. Last Thursday evening I put them through their paces for 2 hours (their director too had wanted me to teach the Mozart Requiem to his choir) only to conclude that these very young and completely inexperienced singers simply are not ready for Mozart. The next day the administration and I decided to abandon this particular project. I hate to quit anything I’ve agreed to do, but in this case I believe discretion is the better part of valour. My sense is that the conductor of the HVC choir is enormously relieved. He too (not to mention the less than competent accompanist) seemed to be well out of his depth.

And then there’s the La Traviata project. Shortly after our arrival in Kunming, I was ushered into the office of the president of Wenhua College, one of the adjunct (private) colleges of YAU. Professor Chen is a conductor and composer and a legendary whirling dervish. He told me about the La Traviata project, the performance of which he would be conducting, and he invited me to coach and rehearse the chorus and soloists. That I have been doing with boundless pleasure all these weeks. Two weeks ago I was greeted at the entrance to the music building by the college’s dean of music and formally invited to conduct the performance.

The Wenhua College Dean of Music with Maggie

Needless to say, I am thrilled that I will be able to continue and conclude this altogether intoxicating journey with these dedicated, talented young singers. After a lengthy discussion, we decided the performance would take place on Sunday, June 17, at 8pm. Fine, all settled, I thought foolishly. Yesterday, I arrived for the rehearsal only to learn that June 17 won’t work after all because a group of the singers have to go to Beijing (you wouldn’t believe how many people around here have to go to Beijing on some kind of “business”) around that time, so we would have to find another date. You’d think someone might have thought of the Beijing junket when we were trying to find a suitable date. But this is China. Chinese ways are inscrutable! In the meantime another problem had developed as well. As you may recall from my previous reports, there are 2 sopranos singing the role of Violetta. So, the big question was…who would actually sing the performance. I suggested they share the role (for those of you who know the opera, it’s in 3 acts, but we’re going to have the single intermission after No. 11, halfway through Act 2, which, by the way, is what most professional productions do as well). One soprano could sing the first half, and the other one take over after the intermission. At first this seemed like a good idea, but then both sopranos balked. Neither of them wanted to sing the 2nd half, because that would deprive them of singing “Sempre Libera”, the sparkling showstopper aria in Act 1. So, what to do? I was to make the Solomonic decision! I spent a fretful evening last night wondering how I would handle this delicate situation. This morning I received a call from Lillian informing me that Prof. Chen, the dean (pictured above with Maggie) and Lillian had discussed this matter and had decided there would be two performances, thereby of course giving each Violetta the opportunity to sing a complete performance, including the much-vaunted “Sempre Libera”. And the dates have been set…June 22 and 23. Now we’ll see whether those plans actually materialize. In any event, I’m hugely relieved that I don’t have to make that very difficult decision. Both Violettas are very good, by the way, and deserve to sing a complete performance.

And that pretty much wraps it up for this time. This morning I was interviewed for 2 hours by Patrick Scally, the Kansas-born editor of, the website that is devoured by every foreigner in Kunming. He’s a lovely guy, an outspoken Democrat from a state not known as a bastion of liberalism. Needless to say, we connected immediately! Maggie and I continue to bask in our new life here, while at the same time counting the days until we return home. Today, on the way to our wonderful market (mangoes, watermelon, lychee fruit are in season), we agreed that less than a week after unpacking our bags in Waterloo, we will be homesick for Kunming. I shall miss our street and the homeless man who sleeps on the sidewalk and sits all day on a bench directly below our apartment, and who invariably greets me with a big smile and thumbs up, especially when I drop a couple of bills into his hat.

Homeless man, one of my new friends!

Life is so very good!




Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required

Please leave these two fields as-is: