Howard's Blog

Mozart LIVES in Kunming!

  • March 6, 2012

Today was one of those days we conductors wait for, sometimes for a very long time. After months of planning, corresponding, anticipating, the day finally arrived. It was my first rehearsal with the Yunnan Arts University choir. There were 33 singers, decent readers, nice balance too. They’re a young choir, typical university age, and they have a remarkably mature sound. There are actually about 60 singers in all registered for the choir, but guess what….university students in China too have part-time jobs. So today the numbers were down a fair bit; we’ll see what happens next week. The rehearsal runs Tuesdays from 4:40 to 6:15pm. We have  to finish in time for the students to catch the last bus from the campus into Kunming, a commute of close to an hour. When we arrived at the rehearsal room (spacious room with risers and a grand piano, good acoustics), there were boxes and boxes of photocopied music waiting to to be distributed to the singers. I had previously alerted them to websites where music can be downloaded free of charge and legally!

Well, these folks had never before sung or heard the Mozart Requiem, so it was a rare privilege for me to introduce one of the iconic works of western culture to these beaming, eager, albeit inexperienced Chinese young people. We sang no text today, just notes on neutral vowels, relishing the fugal delights of the Kyrie and the homophonic charms of the Domine Deus. Next door to us, in another large rehearsal room, the university orchestra was rehearsing (I meet them for the first time on Thursday). It’s a large orchestra and I know it will take some doing to slim that sound down to Mozartian, even early Beethovenian, proportions. But if the players are half as responsive as these singers today, then that too will be a labour of love for me.

The singers certainly are not fluent in English, but it’s amazing what can be achieved without words when there is music to hand. Olivia Chan, a charming university staff person who has been assigned to me for the duration, was there throughout to help with interpreting and translation, but mostly I managed quite well even without her assistance. We did the usual things, vocal warmups getting those vowels to resonate and the coloraturas to sizzle, standing in a big circle, sometimes standing in quartets. All of this was new for them, and they responded beautifully and joyfully. They seemed genuinely sorry when the rehearsal ended. I can’t wait to see them again next Tuesday. We’re going going to have to work hard to learn the Mozart as well as a few choice morsels from Handel’s Messiah (which their conductor had requested). I also hope to do the Samuel Barber Agnus Dei  (a choral transcription of his Adagio for Strings). It’s a terrific ensemble piece, and it has a limited text (BIG factor when working with a choir that has, to date, sung only in Chinese). I’m counting heavily on Maggie to teach them Latin and English in about 5 easy lessons!

The rehearsal ended and we all rushed to catch that 6:30pm bus back to Kunming. There Olivia announced that she was taking Maggie and me to dinner. It was another gastronomic delight. The cuisine here in Kunming (and in Yunnan province generally) is fabulous, especially if you like spicy food. The other night we had a sensational ground beef with mint dish that was simply out of this world. The English menu listed it as “grounded” beef…a nice, zen-like quasi-Budhist touch, I thought. My chopsticks skills are improving daily – I’m now getting more food into my mouth than into my armpit!

A very good day today. Now a glass of wine with Maggie, a bit of reading, listen to some music, then lights out. I’m tired and happy. Can’t wait for tomorrow!


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