Howard's Blog

Kunming 2013 – Final Act and Epilogue

  • May 28, 2013

Time moves in strange ways when you’re far from home. Tomorrow our 2 month sojourn in Kunming, City of Eternal Spring, draws to a close. We’ll be on our way to Beijing for 3 days of sight-seeing and meetings prior to our flight home on June 1. We’ve done so much, made so much music,  experienced so many unusual things, eaten so many exotic foods, forged so many new friendships that it’s hard to believe all this happened in just 2 months. So the weeks have flown by, but at the same time we feel as though we’ve been away for a year. If my reports have been a bit more intermittent than last year, it’s because I’ve been busy…swamped is probably a better word. Since leaving Canada at the end of March, I’ve learned, rehearsed and conducted 38 different compositions, ranging in length from 3 to 30 minutes. 23 of those works are Chinese! In fact the only western piece on my long list which I actually ended up performing was the Schubert Unfinished Symphony. So much for meticulous planning!

Mind you, as busy as we were, we always managed to find an hour or two here and there to continue our exploration of this beautiful city. There’s a splendid Buddhist temple within walking distance of our apartment.

Buddhist temple - An island of serenity in the middle of a bustling city

I like the many-armed Buddha who is able to do many good things simultaneously!

Many-armed Buddha in Kunming temple.

And of course no matter how busy you are, you have to find time to eat. A local specialty is “Over the Bridge Noodles”. Seems a woman long ago who had to cross a bridge to bring her husband his lunch found that she could keep the noodles hot by covering them with oil. Nowadays it’s just a delicious soup, one of many in this town.

"Over the bridge" noodles, a not-to-be-missed local speciality

But now to my work!  I was invited to give a lecture at Yunnan Arts University, where I had taught and conducted for a full semester last year. It really was like coming home. Maggie and I met met many friends from a year ago. The piano department at the university being quite strong, I had decided to talk about Glenn Gould. I was told to expect about 40 listeners. Well, 140 students and faculty showed up! They sat in rapt attention for 2 hours while I held forth about Gould, his life, his ideas about music, his eccentricities, and yes, his incomparable 2 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. Fortunately, my computer has lots of Gould recordings, so we listened to everything from Bach to Brahms to Webern. A few of the faculty members had heard of Gould; most had not. But it was wonderful to see the looks of astonishment on their faces when they heard the first music, the 1955 Goldbergs. This was pianism of an order they were unaccustomed to!

Half of the student/faculty audience at my Gould lecture at Yunnan Arts University

Olivia Chan, who had been my translator at the university last year, again did the honours. It was so good to reconnect with her as well.

Canadian lecturing about Glenn Gould. Olivia Chan translating into Mandarin
Canadian lecturing about Glenn Gould. Olivia Chan translating into Mandarin

No sooner had the lecture ended, than a car whisked us off to another university in Chenggong (a satellite city about 1 hr. south of Kunming…it’s a true university town, population about 1 million, total student population over 100,000) where I briefly rehearsed the choir which was to play an important role in my next big concert with the Kunming Nie Er Symphony Orchestra.

Rehearsing a choir of budding teachers at Yunnan Normal University in Chenggong
Rehearsing a choir of budding teachers at Yunnan Normal University in Chenggon

All of this preceded what I believe must have been the most intensive week in my career thus far. I believe I had mentioned that the May 22 concert arose like an overnight mushroom on the strength of the April 27 concert, which featured the world premiere of Symphony No. 1 “Plateau Feelings” by Yunnan composer Lu Di, a Pipa Concerto “Little Sisters of the Grassland”, and the above-mentioned Schubert Unfinished. The boss of the Yunnan Communist Party (hands down the most powerful guy in Yunnan), in a completely unprecedented gesture, attended the concert, and promptly decreed that there was to be another concert May 22, again featuring a blend of Chinese and western repertoire. (It’s amazing and almost incomprehensible to me that government officials here actually care about what works are programmed! What have Harper or Ford said about TSO programming recently? Mind you, they’ve had other things on their little minds recently!) The Chinese components, it was soon determined, would consist of another Pipa concerto (with the alluring title of “A Night of Flowers and Moonlight by the Spring River”) by Wuzu Qan (one of China’s leading pipa virtuosos), the world premiere of Nashao Cheng’s “The Spirit of Lijiang”, a symphonic suite in 5 movements for large orchestra, choir, and 2 singers from the Naxi (pronounced “nashee”) minority. My western choices were the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn and, the concert being May 22nd (Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday), his utterly sublime Siegfried Idyll, more about which later. The score for the symphonic suite was promptly handed to me for me to begin studying. But the pipa concerto was another matter altogether. Despite my best efforts, gentle and otherwise, the score and instrumental parts didn’t actually materialize until May 15, the first day of rehearsals! I was actually expected to conduct a rehearsal having never seen the score. Well, at that point I put down my usually diplomatic Canadian foot and decreed that we would begin rehearsing the other works and tackle the concerto next day. I spent the rest of the day learning the concerto, a most attractive, highly impressionistic work with a lot left to the improvisatory inclinations of the soloist (read conductor’s nightmare). Next day I was in for a rude surprise! The conductor’s score and the instrumental parts didn’t agree, neither in the bar numbers nor in some of the actual material! I would cue a section and hear…..nothing! At that point, said players had nothing to play in their parts. At other times, anticipating a couple of bars of rest in the woodwinds, I was treated to a volley of notes! The rehearsal was an unmitigated disaster, very frustrating for everyone. Apres rehearsal, my pipa soloist, a completely charming and highly competent musician, along with Cai Hui (she’s the English-speaking principal 2nd violinist) and I spent several fraught hours sorting out this mess. We were successful, subsequent rehearsals went much more smoothly and the performance went beautifully, with nary a hint of what we had been through.

Pipa Concerto perormance. Nobody knew what hell we had gone through to bring this one to life!
Pipa Concerto perormance. Nobody knew what hell we had gone through to bring this one to life!

The symphonic suite “The Spirit of Lijiang” by Nashao Cheng, was another unqualified success. The work, based on the ancient folk traditions of the Naxi minority, calls for choir and 2 specialized Naxi singers in addition to a large, percussion-laden orchestra. The composer, a darling man who was present at every rehearsal (not always a good thing!) was beaming after the performance…

A happy composer following the world premiere of his "The Spirit of Lijiang"
A happy composer following the world premiere of his “The Spirit of Lijiang”

The soloists not only were excellent singers (some absolutely remarkable vocal ornamentation – Rossini, eat your heart out!), they also were resplendent in their ethnic costumes.

Naxi soloists
Naxi soloists

The Brahms “Haydn Variations” went very well indeed, far exceeding anything we had managed to achieve in rehearsals. My respect for Herr Brahms has gone up exponentially. Those hemiolas are a real challenge at the best of times! But for me the pièce de résistance of the whole evening was the Wagner Siegfried Idyll. I’ve already mentioned that we were performing Wagner on May 22nd, his 200th birthday. Maggie knew Wagner had written it as a birthday present for his wife Cosima who had just given birth to their son Siegfried. What Maggie didn’t know was that Cosima’s birthday was on Dec. 24, but she always celebrated it on Dec. 25th, Christmas Day. And so it was on Christmas Day, 1870, that Wagner arranged for a small group of musicians to come to the Wagner home in Lucerne to perform it for Cosima. So here we were in 2013, on Wagner’s 200th birthday, May 22nd, one day after Maggie’s birthday, and we got the stage hostess to dedicate the performance to Maggie as a special birthday present from the orchestra and from me. The audience loved it, the orchestra was thrilled to be “in” on my little scheme, and Maggie was quite overcome.

But in show business, there’s no rest for the wicked. Next day, we were back rehearsing, getting ready for an open air pops concert in the north of Kunming at the Kunming Nie Er Music Square. It’s an outdoor plaza that’s part of the rehearsal and administration complex of the orchestra. (You’ve seen the name Nie Er in a number of my reports; he was a Kunming composer who lived from 1912 to 1935…a tragically brief life cut short by a swimming accident. Nie Er wrote a lot of music in his brief lifetime, the best-known of which is the Chinese national anthem.)

The programme was fun…4 Strauss waltzes, a couple of Chinese waltzes, the Khatchaturian Masquerade Waltz, highlights from Bizet’s Carmen, etc, etc. The early evening rain stopped just in time for the concert, and we had a blast. A number of female dancers, gorgeous in their long gowns, were on hand to engage various of the gentlemen in the audience in dancing to the music. What the dancing lacked in finesse was more than made up for in enthusiasm.

Dancing under the stars in Kunming
Dancing under the stars in Kunming

We even played the Gade “Tango Jalousie” I hadn’t heard that one in years!) And there was 1 intrepid couple that danced it to our sizzling interpretation!

Latin heat comes to the Middle Kingdom!
Latin heat comes to the Middle Kingdom!

During the long intermission, food and drinks were served to everyone. All very tastefully done.

All ready for the culinary part of the evening
All ready for the culinary part of the evening
The arrangement of the wineglasses and the decanters definitely outclassed the vintages themselves! China has so much to offer - good wine is not (yet) on that list!
The arrangement of the wineglasses and the decanters definitely outclassed the vintages themselves! China has so much to offer – good wine is not (yet) on that list!

A couple more Strauss waltzes, the inevitable Radetzky March to conclude (complete with audience clapping along) and suddenly it was over! Two months of intense engagement with a good if not great orchestra had come to an end. The goodbyes were touching…lots of hugs and kisses and a few tears. We’ve become very close, the orchestra and I. Music does that. I’m going to miss them terribly. Who knows, this may not be the end of it. Rumours are swirling as we speak!

In the days following, a mad round of farewell lunches and dinners, plus a day trip yesterday to Anning, a neighbouring city about an hour’s drive from Kunming. This is the new home of Wenhua College, the school where I rehearsed and performed La Traviata last year when the college was still located in Kunming City. What a reunion, seeing old friends, both students and faculty. We were treated to command performances by both the Chinese instrument orchestra and the college choir.

Lunch with Olivia Chan and Maggie Chi from the Yunnan Arts University
Lunch with Olivia Chan and Maggie Chi from the Yunnan Arts University
Chines instrument student orchestra at Wenhua College. Erhus, pipes, chinese flutes and LOTS of percussion!
Chinese instrument student orchestra at Wenhua College. Erhus, pipes, chinese flutes and LOTS of percussion!
Wenhua College choir in rehearsal.
Wenhua College choir in rehearsal.

Then we were taken to a nearby privately owned country estate and restaurant where we relaxed with tea before dinner…

Living the good life!
Living the good life!

followed by yet another sumptuous Chinese banquet…

Culinary Delight #743!!! It just never seems to end!
Culinary Delight #743!!! It just never seems to end!

A very special treat awaited us that evening. The young faculty member who sang the role of Alfredo in last year’s La Traviata gave his annual mandatory recital. a programme of Chinese art songs. Interesting music, surprisingly Impressionistic with a hint of 20th c. English in it too. All cut from the same cloth, I’m afraid. I needed more contrast in the writing. The tenor sang nicely enough, his mediocre accompanist notwithstanding. He was so happy to see us there and, upon receiving his bouquets at the end of the concert, promptly presented them to Maggie and me!

With our tenor friend
With our tenor friend

This morning, our last day in Kunming! Relax? Are you kidding? At 10am, we were picked up and taken to the home of Lu Di, the composer whose symphony I had premiered on April 27th. We had a lovely visit, talking about the influence of folk music on original composition (the names Bartok and Kodaly were invoked repeatedly), we talked about programme music and absolute music (almost every Chinese work I know is programmatic), and we  talked about the composer-audience gap resulting from the Second Viennese School. All very interesting, and made painfully glacial by the language barrier. He declared himself very pleased by our performance and informed me that he is now in the process of making some slight revisions to the work.

Conductor and composer…friends and colleagues!
Conductor and composer…friends and colleagues!

And of course, there was lunch, beautifully prepared by Lu Di’s wife…

l to r - Lu Haoyin, his father Lu Di, Haoyin's daughter Lu Han, Lu Di's wife, Maggie (back to camera) Old Jewish saying, "First we eat, then we talk"
l to r – Lu Haoyin, his father Lu Di, Haoyin’s daughter Lu Han, Lu Di’s wife, Maggie (back to camera) Old Jewish saying, “First we eat, then we talk”

Which brings me to tonight, right now, writing this blog. So what does it all mean? I wish I knew, I really do. What I can tell you is that I now have a full-blown love-hate relationship with Kunming and China….leaning more towards towards love, if truth be told. Just when I think I’m beginning to get some kind of tenuous grip on the Chinese mentality, I’m punched in the solar plexus yet again. But it’s an incredible world here…5000 years of written history, for heaven’s sake! I’ve learned so very much, and I can’t wait to continue that quest of unlocking the secrets of the Middle Kingdom. And yes, I really, truly have developed a love for the pipa! China is so many things…Beijing and Kunming are as different as night and day. I’m curious to discover the differences and the similarities that mark the many parts and regions of China. That journey begins with a few timid steps in the next few days as we travel to Beijing for 3 nights prior to our return to Canada.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me. You may well hear from me again!

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