Howard's Blog

One Week in Kunming – Pentatonic Overload!

  • April 6, 2013

As I was contemplating a title for this blog posting, a few different ones came to mind. I’ll refer to the various ones as I write. One week ago yesterday we arrived in Kunming to begin a 2 month residency with the Kunming Nie Er Symphony Orchestra. To say it’s been eventful would be a vast understatement. The flight itself was pleasant enough, exceptionally smooth actually, but of course very long. We got to our apartment about 2am on Good Friday, got a few hours of fitful sleep and awoke to glorious weather. It’s been stunning weather pretty much every day…highs in the mid 20s and lows in the 10-12 degree range. Low humidity, clean air…this is Kunming, the City of Eternal Spring. I’d love to show you some photos but I’ve run into a technical snafu; when my teenage grandson solves the glitch there will be pics, lots of pics.

Settling in has been much easier this time around. We know the neighbourhood, the shops, the bakeries, the markets. People here still remember us from last year, so in a sense it’s like coming home. But we don’t speak the language, so of course it’s not home at all. After a weekend to adjust to the new time zone (12 hour difference from home), work began in earnest on Monday. I had come prepared with all kinds of repertoire for the orchestra, but for the moment all that has to wait. It turned out that 2 unexpected gigs for the orchestra had materialized, and seeing there was this unsuspecting conductor just arrived from Canada, he might as well conduct them. So, at the airport I was handed a stack of scores for me to learn and begin rehearsing  3 days later!

“Baptism by Fire” was one blog title that came to mind as I immersed myself in a welter of pieces, very few of which I had ever conducted before. We’re talking about repertoire as diverse as the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a couple of Strauss Waltzes, the Masquerade Waltz by Khachaturian, “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Overture to Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, etc, etc, etc! That’s a partial list of just the western repertoire. Now let’s talk about the Chinese rep. Oh, my goodness me! Here are a few titles: Jasmine Flower; Flowing Stream; Dianchi Lake Waltz; I love you, China; Ode to Red Flag. (This last one is actually on Youtube, played by the Austrian Tonkünstler Orchester in Vienna’s Musikverein, no less! It’s a bombastic little trifle, full of sound and fury, signifying little. Think Mahler on speed!) All of these Chinese selections share one thing in common…they’re all in the Pentatonic mode. About 2 hrs. into my first rehearsal, my western sensibilities screamed out for a major or minor scale…MY KINGDOM FOR A SEMITONE!. After my first rehearsal, I came home, heard Maggie singing something in a major key, and promptly burst into tears. OK, I’m exaggerating just a bit. All of the repertoire I’ve referred to we’ll be performing at a special concert on April 13th (1 week from today…holy smoke!) for the city government here in Kunming. City officials actually set the programme (kinda reminds you of Rob Ford’s cultural proclivities, don’t you think?). But from day to day I’m noticing that the programme is changing. Various minions are flitting about during the rehearsals, snatching away scores that we thought we would be playing, and replacing them with some other gem. Another possible blog title borrowed from the Book of Job came to mind, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away”. Right at that moment I wasn’t so sure about the rejoinder “Blessed be the name of the Lord”. As of today we’re looking at 17 selections for that concert. Following the concluding Radetzky March, the audience will stand to sing  a Chinese National Song (not the National anthem, I’m told). Because this is standard fare for every Chinese conductor, there is no score to be found. So I’ve been given a 1st violin part and will conduct from that. Mind you, I quickly noticed that the 1st violins don’t play at all until 3 bars in, but what the heck…it begins with an upbeat (I’m told!), the tempo is a brisk march, so I’ll just start waving my stick and see what happens. Which brings to mind another blog title – “Flying by the Seat of my Pants”! The posterior portion of my jeans is shiny and threadbare by now, I can assure you!

Now that concert is next Saturday. Before that (yes, before!) we fly to DeHong, a small city/region in the extreme west of Yunnan, right on the border with Myanmar. We’re to do a concert of nothing but Chinese repertoire. I can’t give you a single title yet, because all the writing on my scores is in Chinese so I don’t know whether a particular song is about grandmother’s funeral or cucumber soup! There are 9 selections on that programme, and all but one are with a soprano soloist. We had a 3 1/2 hour rehearsal today, and our soloist was there. Oh dear me! A real Chinese sound, the kind you associate with Chinese opera, a high, girlish kind of production. Her interpretive instincts are neither informed nor restricted by what’s on the page (look, she’s more or less musically illiterate), so I’m having to dig deep into every conducting technique I ever learned, leading a large orchestra while following a singer who is singing a language I don’t understand. Let’s just say this is recitative conducting in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno! A small consolation is the fact that the orchestra too is having trouble divining our diva’s musical intentions. We rehearse again tomorrow and Monday, trying also to squeeze in some rehearsal of the  material for next Saturday’s concert. Then on Tuesday the government is flying the whole lot of us (about 90 people or so) to DeHong, about an hour’s flight from Kunming. The concert isn’t until Wednesday night, which is good because we have to rehearse with a local choir which will also be featured in some of the selections, along with the soprano soloist. I haven’t been able to determine exactly what the reason for the concert is, although I’m hearing rumours that it has some kind of military significance. Now that’s really great! Mennonite boy from the Canadian prairies conducts concert for the People’s Liberation Army! You can’t make this stuff up! We’ll spend 2 nights in DeHong, and I hope we’ll have a chance to explore one of the remotest parts of Yunnan Province. It’s a tropical climate, rather warm and very humid, quite unlike beautiful Kunming. Upon our return to Kunming on the 11th, we’ll get back to rehearsals for the 13th as soon as possible, which is to say, as soon as the large instruments (double basses, harp, percussion) arrive by truck from DeHong, a trek of about 600 kms. That road, incidentally, is the famous Burma Road, built during the war between Japan and China in the 1930s.

A week ago, just after our arrival, when I was being bombarded with all the details of what I would be doing in just the first 2 weeks here, I expressed some slight consternation to Lu Haoyin, the (barely) English-speaking “Minister of Public Relations” with the orchestra. His response…”Don’t worry, the music is easy. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!” Something about fiddling while Rome burns came to mind about then, but I decided to let it go.

I’ll wrap it up here for today. Maggie will fill you in on some of the other details of our sojourn here. You can follow her blog at


3 Comments on One Week in Kunming – Pentatonic Overload!

  • operajoseph says:
    April 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Pentatonic Overload – oh this is hilarious! But at least it is not Serialism Overload… I am not a musician so please correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you get the feeling that pentatonic music is all very predictable? Sort of like Rossini – you press a button and it keeps going! You can almost fudge it. About the National Song, see if you can ask them for a video or a tape – that would help.

    Toi toi toi to your upcoming grand concert!



  • photogabby says:
    April 6, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Wow! Fascinating to hear :) You can do it, you can do it, you can do it!


  • charlenepauls says:
    April 19, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    HI Howard and Maggie,
    I’ve been reading your blogs out loud to my family and we are roaring with laughter. Hilarious! Thanks for the great entertainment!


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