Howard's Blog

“May Day! May Day!” Celebration and a hint of SOS

  • May 2, 2013

It’s Thursday, May 2, a frenetic 3 day May Day holiday is over, Kunming is finally enjoying some significant rainfall, and I’m sitting in our living room contemplating the events of the past couple of weeks. Oh my, oh my…it’s been another round of surprises, most of them delightful, all of them endlessly fascinating. I don’t want to rub your noses in it (all you Canadians who are just now finally getting a taste of spring), but the weather’s been gorgeous here in Kunming! The bougainvillaea are in their prime right now, and it’s hard to resist taking yet another photo!Bougainvillea in the Spring City

So what have I been up to lately? I’ve been up to my eyeballs in music, that’s what! I conducted 2 concerts with the orchestra on successive days last Friday and Saturday. The Saturday event was the big one, featuring a Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra, the world premiere of Symphony No. 1 by Lu Di (a senior Yunnan composer) and the Schubert Symphony No. 8 (the “Unfinished”). I had been sent the Chinese scores electronically long before we left Canada. The concerto was an easy to read score, but the symphony was a pdf of a handwritten score, exceedingly hard to read. However, I struggled valiantly, trying to determine on which lines or spaces those little black scratches were actually located. So I arrive at my first rehearsal on Monday, and the librarian proudly hands me 2 conductor’s scores…1 for the concerto and 1 for the symphony. Having my own with all the markings I had put into them, I ignored them at first. At the end of the rehearsal I thought maybe I should take a closer look. Wouldn’t you know that the symphony was a beautiful computer-generated score, easy to read, all the instruments indicated by their English names rather than the Chinese characters in my version which I had been laboriously trying to decipher! It would have been nice to have been sent that cleaned up version in the first place, but never mind! Things went ever so much more smoothly after that. The composer Lu Di is a lovely man, and he was present at ALL rehearsals. (Note to self: encourage composers whose works you are rehearsing to go for long walks or even take a trip to a lovely spot an hour’s flight from where you happen to be!) Given all his helpful (?) advice, it soon became apparent that I was going to have to lay on some extra rehearsals if we were going to get all 3 pieces ready for the performance. I had been told early on that it was up to me to decide whether or not to call a 2nd rehearsal on any given day. The orchestra routinely rehearses 9:30am to 12 noon, but it’s my prerogative to call them for the afternoon as well. I did that starting Tuesday, and nobody complained! In this part of the world, people are used to having their schedules disrupted at short notice. The government “owns” the orchestra, so if our services are needed, we may get notification 3 or 4 days in advance. For example, on Monday, we were informed that on Friday (the day before our big concert), we were to do a repeat of the “town hall” concert we had done earlier at Victory Hall (see a previous blog). Of course that meant my carefully-contrived rehearsal schedule had just been shot to smithereens, but we gamely soldiered on! On Wednesday morning I arrived, only to find the elevators didn’t work. We rehearse on the 7th floor, and these storeys are mothers! About 35 steps per floor! Remember Kunming is situated 2000 meters above sea level! Panting heavily, I staggered into the rehearsal room and my heart sank. The reason the elevators didn’t work was that there was a power failure in the building (indeed, in the entire neighbourhood, due to street construction, I was told). The room was more or less dark! I could just make out the notes in my score. I have no idea how the woodwinds, brasses and percussion in the back of the orchestra were able to see at all, but somehow we managed to get through two big rehearsals without any electricity. When I told the players that in Canada nobody would play under such conditions, they applauded politely and cheerfully went back to work.

Lu Di, who has done a lot of work researching the music of the various minorities who are concentrated in Yunnan, had included brief passages for 2 ethnic instruments, a Chinese flute and a natural (i.e. valveless) trumpet. From time to time, the two players actually showed up for rehearsals. Nice chaps, sort of homespun musicians! At one point in the finale, they are to play a duet, some of which is in unison! You may have heard the definition of a semitone  – 2 oboes playing in unison. Well, this was much the same. With both instruments having an extremely strident sound, the effect was hilarious, so much so that the orchestra members actually burst out laughing. The poor players didn’t really know about adjusting their pitches to each other. So, just before the dress rehearsal the composer decided to excise the offending passage altogether. Crisis averted!

Rehearsing the concerto was a fantastic experience. The pipa player (see horizontal picture of her in my last blog) is an accomplished player, and a most congenial musical colleague, very musical and expressive! And she speaks a tiny bit of English!   The pipa is a 4 string (usually) lute-like instrument held more or less vertically. It has been a mainstay of Chinese music for about 2000 years, so there is a great corpus of music written for it. The concerto we did is a wonderful piece, dating back to just after the Cultural Revolution. It’s full of descriptive programmatic elements, and chock-a-block with huge dramatic contrasts and lots of tempo changes! The soloist does a lot of extemporizing in the frequent cadenza-like passages, and frequently what she actually plays bears little resemblance to what’s there on the page. However, she was fairly consistent each time, so I was able to figure out what she was going to do. I had been told that the orchestra was familiar with the concerto, but that proved not to be the case. So we were all learning it for the first time! Well, with those two Chinese works to master, it seemed that poor Mr. Schubert was being short changed. His symphony invariably came towards the end of the rehearsal, so all the extra players needed for the Chinese works could leave early. And yet these Schubertian sessions proved to be magical. After all the bombast in the Chinese pieces, it took a little while to bring the players down to the p and pp dynamic levels which are so crucial to the “Unfinished”, but they did it, and they got pretty adept at tuning those Romantic harmonies as well. (Once I had explained the mysteries of F double sharp to the 2nd flute, we even mastered that brief foray into G# minor!)

As I said earlier, Friday (April 26) was taken up with a rehearsal and evening performance in a local high school. The hall is impressive.

Entrance to High School Concert Hall in Kunming
Entrance to High School Concert Hall in Kunming

Interior of High School Concert Hall

The two divas (whose vocal attributes I have commented on previously) were on hand again for this repeat concert and they acquitted themselves in much the same fashion as they had done the first time. (I was reminded of my conducting professor in Germany who described one vocal vibrato as wide enough to throw a hat through it [“Da kann man ein Hut durch schmeissen”]. Well, gentle reader, the vibrato sported by these ladies could easily accommodate an 18 wheeler!) But they looked like a million bucks! No wonder, because they had commandeered my dressing room. When I arrived, my room was taken by said two soloists as well as the stage hostess for the evening. I was shown to a dusty room completely filled with all kinds of stage equipment (nary a chair or a mirror in sight). At that point Maggie put her foot down and insisted on something somewhat more befitting the conductor. A quick call to Beijing (just kidding!) and we were escorted to this room, all of the upholstered chairs covered in protective dust-proof sheets. We made ourselves at home…

My dressing room! Notice the complete absence of dust on the chairs!
My dressing room! Notice the complete absence of dust on the chairs!

The concert itself was a big success, although I didn’t see anyone that looked remotely like a high school student. It just seemed to be another event for the local community. These folks were noisy!! I mean, I’ve encountered some loud audiences here, but this one hit some kind of decibel record! Wow, I had trouble hearing the soloists from time to time (which wasn’t an entirely bad thing!). We might as well have mimed the slow movement from the Spring section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – there was no way you could hear any of our sensitive interpretation!

With no time to rest on our laurels, next morning we had the dress rehearsal for our big concert in the Kunming Theatre, arguably Kunming’s leading concert facility. The rehearsal went off without a hitch. A couple of hours rest, then back to the hall for the concert. I’m pointed in the direction of my dressing room, and find it to be…locked! Somebody came along and pounded on the door. Turns out my space had been taken by the hostess for the evening who was preening herself. I decided to share the room with her (she soon vamoosed when she realized I wasn’t leaving). Mind you, as soon as she was gone, I made the mistake of going to the stage for about 1 minute to make sure everything was properly arranged for the concert. When I returned, her place had been taken by the minorities flute player who needed a place to practice his instrument/weapon!

The Maestro and the Stage Hostess share a dressing room. Instant Intimacy!
The Maestro and the Stage Hostess share a dressing room. Instant Intimacy!

Then came the concert. Again a big success! The Lu Di Symphony was first, and it was clear that our hard work had paid off. It came off very well indeed. Even the 2 minorities chaps managed their bits without any trouble. Lu Di was thrilled and came to the stage to take a bow…

Lu Di and Howard applauding each other after the premiere of Lu Di's Symphony #1
Lu Di and Howard applauding each other after the premiere of Lu Di’s Symphony #1

The Pipa Concerto was next, and it rocked! We absolutely nailed it! The soloist was even better than she been during the rehearsals and the audience loved her!

Pipa Soloist. Lovely lady, superb musician!

After the concert, I got a rather nice pic of her together with Maggie. The 2 of them hit it off immediately!

Pipa player and Maggie. Another cross-cultural friendship is forged!
Pipa player and Maggie. Another cross-cultural friendship is forged!

During the intermission came the BIG NEWS! Qin Guang Rong, the Secretary-General of the Yunnan Communist Party, was present with a large retinue of handlers. He sat a few rows behind Maggie, who didn’t quite have the nerve to take his picture. But the backstage buzz during the intermission was palpable. This guy has power! If he shows up at an event, you know it’s important. (Kind of like Rob Ford showing up for the opera! Sorry, I couldn’t resist!). During the intermission, the concertmaster, Zeng Ke strolled by, absolutely beaming!

Concertmaster Zeng Ke and his Canadian conductor friend. Ke is a splendid colleague!
Concertmaster Zeng Ke and his Canadian conductor friend. Ke is a splendid colleague!

And then came the Schubert! First of all, the orchestra played extremely well. The work begins with the cello and double basses playing that incredible B minor theme. They started so softly and so beautifully with every note shaped and ebbing and flowing. I had spent quite a bit of time in rehearsal emphasizing that the music must always ebb and flow – it’s never static, because then it’s boring! They got it! Big time! And I’ve never heard a Chinese audience so quiet.

The reward!
The reward!

All of us – onstage and in the audience – were mesmerized by Schubert’s genius! It was a high moment! Of course there were flowers after the performance! Lots of flowers!

It was Saturday night, and tough to get a cab to take us back home. We flagged down an illegal one, had a glass of wine, and flopped into bed, exhausted! It had been quite a week!

Next morning, Lu Haoyin (he’s the composer’s son, he speaks English, and he works for the orchestra) and I headed off to the orchestra offices for a meeting. Turns out that our distinguished guest the previous night, the Secretary-General of the Yunnan Communist Party, had been duly impressed and had made the decision right on the spot that there is to be another special, previously unscheduled concert on May 22. And guess what…they want another brand new Chinese work, this time by another Yunnan composer, something for choir and orchestra. The piece was written just last year, and looks very interesting! It’s about a half hour long and calls for a full orchestra in addition to SATB choir. The rest of the program hasn’t been finalized, but I’m thinking it will be the Haydn Trumpet Concerto (my principal trumpet is dynamite, and I heard him practicing the Haydn recently – very impressive!) and the Beethoven Eroica symphony. The Kunming Theatre has been booked, the necessary funding has been found (ticket sales are at best a minor irritant here, reminiscent of what Europe used to be like in the good old days). So, when the right folks want something to happen, it happens! No Canadian premier could pull that off!

All this just before we all celebrated May Day. Everybody got Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off…the orchestra isn’t back at work until May 6. All next week they’ll be working with a French conductor as part of the annual China-France Festival. The French presence in this part of Asia is still pretty strong. I think I may sit in on a couple of rehearsals and we certainly will attend the concert on the 10th. Otherwise I’ll be studying the new Chinese piece, brushing up my Haydn and Beethoven and taking regular walks in our beloved Green Lake Park. The May Day parade on Monday went right through the park.

Stareet encircling Green Lake festooned with May Day flags
Street encircling Green Lake festooned with May Day flags

And so it goes, one colour-soaked, experience-saturated day after another! How we would love to give you a personal guided tour of the various haunts that are now home to us. Until such time as you decide to actually come and visit us (we have 2 spare bedrooms!), I suppose these little reports will have to do.

Till next time!









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