Howard's Blog

Mozart – Ever LARGER! Verdi – Ever BETTER! Kunming – Ever AMAZING!

  • March 28, 2012

So where was I when we last talked? I think I was raving about the La Traviata rehearsal with the chorus. What fun that was! But much, very much has happened since then. Saturday morning Maggie and I were invited to attend a rehearsal of the Higher Vocational College, another adjunct school of Yunnan Arts University. The singers (average age 18-20) in this choir on the old campus are all aspiring music teachers, and they are serious about what they do. They rehearse every Saturday from 8:30am to 12 noon, and then again from 2:30 to 6pm, a total of 7 hours! And I understand they rehearse Thursday evenings as well. When we arrived at 9:30am, they had already been rehearsing for an hour. There were about 130 singers in the room; 40 couldn’t be there because they were off writing some exam, so it’s really a choir of 170.

Higher Vocational College Choir in rehearsal

They gave us a huge ovation when we entered the room, and then proceeded to sing a couple of Chinese selections for us. Quite impressive, although the part writing in these selections was fairly basic, mostly 2 part. Well, the expectation was that I would decide right then and there whether I would conduct this choir during our stay here. Being a tad gun shy after my experience with the 60 voice choir on the Chenggong campus, I was coy and said I would like to discuss the matter over lunch with the director of the choir and Olivia, my trusty interpreter. When I showed up again at noon just as they were breaking for lunch, they again applauded my entrance and sang a song they had prepared especially for me. Then came lunch!

I had naively anticipated a quiet discussion over a bowl of rice in the university canteen. Boy, was I wrong! We were escorted to a restaurant just off campus (the same one I told you about in an earlier post; the building is the former residence of a Chinese army general). We had one room all to ourselves…2 round tables, each with 10 place settings. There were senior faculty members, some administration officials and a number of section leaders from the choir. The food, as always, was phenomenal. Of the dozen or so dishes, the piece de resistance was a rack of pork ribs, cooked in a sensational spicy sauce.

A "light" lunch between rehearsals

What was interesting and unusual for me was the fact that the students would take their chopsticks (with which they had been eating for some time), dig into the pork dish, carve off a chunk of meat and place it in my bowl, always with a beaming smile! I ate it and loved it, my rationale being that any bacteria would surely have been disposed of by the spices! We actually did talk business, my chief concern being repertoire. Their director was well aware that I was rehearsing the Mozart Requiem in Chenggong, and he suggested we do the same with this choir. The choir members solemnly promised to work very hard at learning the music. Then my wheels started turning, and I said why not put the 2 choirs together, and have the university hire the Kunming Symphony Orchestra (that’s the professional ensemble in town that I’m going to be guest conducting in May). I had already concluded that the university orchestra won’t be ready to accompany the Mozart in addition to the orchestral rep I’m doing with them, so this was a possible way out of that pinch. Well, they loved the idea, so now I have to see whether this will in fact all come to pass. These notions of collaboration between “town and gown” are virtually unheard of here. If all goes according to plan (and so far, nothing has!), then what I had begun to think might be a Mozart Requiem performance with about 35 singers will turn out to be one with 230 voices! My responsibility will be to rehearse them 4 hours every other Saturday. Their director will spend all those other hours (Saturdays and Thursday evenings) working nothing but the Mozart Requiem and (at their request) the Hallelujah Chorus! Mozart with a choir of 230! It seems that everything in China is exponential, even the size of choirs. I was amused by their determination to persuade me to take them on; they certainly do know how to pitch woo. Now we’ll see how the consummation of this relationship works out! (Footnote to this little chapter – Olivia reported to me yesterday that 180 copies of the Requiem have already been prepared and will be ready for tomorrow night’s rehearsal.)

That evening (it’s still Saturday) we were invited out for dinner again, this time to meet some visiting American university officials from Maryhill University in Scranton, PA, who were in China on a student recruitment tour. The restaurant, yet again, was memorable. This time it was a Tibetan restaurant and, we were told, very authentic. The food was good, although perhaps not quite up to the standards  we have become accustomed to here in Kunming. The aperitif  we were offered was, shall we say, unique. It was…..warm yak’s milk! You had a choice of sweet or savory. We decided (unwisely, I’m inclined to think) on the latter. The savory part was really just slightly salty. I think this is an acquired taste…or, maybe it was just a bad year for yak’s milk! But it was an experience. As for unusual fare, I always say if doesn’t kill the locals, it likely won’t get me either. Often the flavors are not so bad, just strange. Of much greater interest, however, was the performance of Tibetan song and dance that went on all evening. Now that was something! The costumes alone were most impressive.

Tibetan singers and dancers in traditional costume

Detail from Buddhist shrine in Tibetan restaurant

A word or two about the Verdi La Traviata rehearsals. The soloists continue to amaze me. Yesterday I heard the elder Germont for the first time. He’s a young bass-baritone with all the heft the role requires. And they’re all so keen, so eager. My 90′ with them just fly by! Yesterday we had a different accompanist, also superb, but the one from the earlier rehearsal was there as well, following intently and constantly making notes in her score.

One other new development in my teaching load. The plan always was that I would teach some conducting, but scheduling proved to be a real challenge. However, 2 students (a percussion major and a composition major) are very eager to have some lessons, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays I get to see them for about 40′. Our bus from Kunming arrives in Chenggong at about 3:50pm, and my rehearsal doesn’t start until 4:40, so I have a small window, and we’re taking advantage of it. Had one introductory class yesterday, and I was pleasantly surprised. Talked about basic concepts, including independence of hands. The percussionist (obviously) had no problems with this! I think this will be a lot of fun.

Domestic issues occasionally pose a bit of a challenge. Everyone, including the locals, drinks bottled water. We too have a 5 gallon water container mounted on a stand in our kitchen. Today it needed replacing. How to let anyone know? Here’s what we did. First, I called He Xiaoxun. She’s the co-owner of the French Cafe (remember, we’re renting our apartment from her colleagues who are in Paris for several months) and she speaks English. Xiaoxun has been wonderfully helpful in all these survival matters. She told me to take my phone (I’m so happy my cell works fine here) downstairs to the Cafe and call her again. She then spoke to one of the staff (they don’t speak English) at the Cafe, who came up to our apartment and used our landline to call the water delivery guy (he carries as many as a dozen of these 5 gallon containers on his motorbike). When he sees our landline number come up, he knows which address to bring the water to. Less than an hour later, there he was, and we had a fresh supply of drinking water. Nothing to it, really!

Over the weekend we entertained Peter and Wendy, dear friends from home who are in Asia on a business trip. It was delightful to show them at least the small part of Kunming that we’ve already gotten to know, and to sample a few of the restaurants. So far, “Heavenly Manna” is our favorite; we find ourselves there 2 or 3 times a week. P & W could stay for only 2 nights before heading on to Beijing. It was a rare treat to see some familiar faces!

Maggie’s English classes continue to go gangbusters. She had some wonderful touching moments to tell me about yesterday. You can read all about it soon on her next post (

Tomorrow, more Verdi, more Beethoven and Mozart with the orchestra, and another conducting class, and Maggie meets her English class. Next week, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are holidays…it’s tomb-sweeping time, when people clean up the graves of their dear departed, and maybe even bury some money somewhere near the grave, “just in case” the ancestors want to go shopping! The university shuts down for those days, although some classes will be made up in advance. So this Sunday, I will conduct a Verdi rehearsal, and then Maggie and I are off to Chenggong for a choir rehearsal, conducting class, and English class.

That’s it for today. Stay tuned!

1 Comment on Mozart – Ever LARGER! Verdi – Ever BETTER! Kunming – Ever AMAZING!

  • operajoseph says:
    March 28, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks, Howard, for such an entertaining entry! I had so much fun reading it! And that photo of the food – you mean that thing that looks like a bridge is ribs??? No wonder I am hungry just looking at it! I hope your Mozart Requiem will be videotaped and we’ll get to see it when you come back to Canada. Looking forward to the next instalment of yours (and Maggie’s) journals….
    Best, Joseph


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