Howard's Blog

Peacocks, Passta, Pipes and Pipas!

  • April 18, 2013

OK, OK, put those red editing pencils away, you literary fusspots. That second item in my alliteratively-inspired title is not a typo! Read on – all will be revealed!

In the 12 or so days since you last heard from me, we’ve experienced at least 12 weeks’ worth of adventures and utterly new experiences. Let me begin by going back to April 9. That was our travel day to Mangshi, capital city of the autonomous prefecture of DeHong. (“Autonomous prefecture” is a designation given to particular regions in China having a high concentration of ethnic minorities. Yunnan Province, with its unusually large number of minorities, has 8 such prefectures.) The 2 predominant minorities in the DeHong prefecture are Dai and Jingpo. Mangshi, a city of about 300,000, is also known as the peacock capital of the world. That became apparent as soon as we landed at the DeHong airport. The building itself is a stylized peacock.


(Small sidebar here. We have noticed a disproportionate number of Volkswagens in China. I’m told that many, but not all, of them are built here. This particular Passat at the DeHong airport had obviously been imported from Italy!)

A little learning is a dangerous thing!

There, that explains what you so cruelly judged to be a typo in my title!

Roughing it in Mangshi City!

Two buses were waiting to take us to the Magshi Hotel, a splendid 5 star establishment. Maggie and I were given the Executive Suite!

The life of a suffering artist!

Next morning the entire orchestra and we were taken to the concert hall for a rehearsal with a local Dai choir which would do some backup singing to our soprano soloist (about whom I rhapsodized in my previous blog). Upon entering the premises, I was greeted by this fetching creature…

And she can sing too!

I soon realized that she was just one member of the choir. Maggie and I were soon surrounded by a crowd of ethnically-festooned Dai singers, all of them eager for a group photo.

Remember Sesame Street? Which 2 don't belong?

The hall itself is a handsome 1150 seat facility.

Mangshi Concert Hall

And here’s what it looks like on the inside…

Mangshi Concert Hall

Mangshi Concert Hall

The rehearsal was not without its challenges. The choir, lovely folks, all of them, are not accustomed to singing with a conductor, and certainly not with an orchestra.

Dress rehearsal in Mangshi

And of course there was the soloist! She is in fact quite accomplished and is on the faculty at Yunnan Arts University (where I taught last year, although I didn’t meet her then). However, she too is not particularly bound by the strictures of actual notation. I’m finding that there’s a high degree of improvisation in much of this music. Just like Baroque music, only completely different! So there I was, a Canadian traffic cop trying to coordinate about 120 singers and players. Add to that the fact that I was conducting from a shrunk down photocopy of a handwritten score. Many of these Chinese pieces have never been published. But I survived, and must say I actually enjoyed the experience, if only because through all the confusion everyone was in good humour.

Then came the evening and the concert itself. As we entered the hall through the stage door entrance, I noticed a huge TV truck parked outside. The whole event was being televised. (Don’t hold your breath – BRAVO won’t be showing it anytime soon!) The camera crew had 5 cameras, one mounted on a massive boom which kept swinging menacingly over our heads throughout the concert. Upon entering the hall, all of the performers had to walk through a metal detector, exactly like the ones you walk through in airports. (Was one lone Canadian conductor really such a security risk?) I noticed that the alarm kept going off repeatedly, but nobody did anything about it. The auditorium itself had been properly prepared – every seat had a beautiful full-colour glossy paper programme as well as a bottle of drinking water.

While we were waiting for the concert to begin, I was deluged by members of the Dai choir, all of whom wanted their picture taken with the visiting Canadian conductor. The woman to my left made a Dai hat especially for me!

Canadian conductor in Dai hat! Note the peacock theme! It's "me", don't you think?

The performance itself went astonishingly well, and I somehow managed not to disgrace myself. The capacity audience has to be the noisiest crowd I’ve ever heard. It reminded me of a Blue Jays game, really! But I could hear the soloist! Her voice was amplified to such a degree that I’m sure folks in neighbouring Laos also enjoyed the performance. The audience seemed to love the concert, at least if their tumultuous ovations was any indication. By the way, I mentioned in my last blog that there was some kind of military connection to the concert. Well, something obviously got lost in the translation. It was a special concert for the entire community, with nary a military uniform in sight. This pacifist heaved a huge sigh of relief!

After the concert, we were taken back to the hotel to freshen up, and then at 11pm, the buses took us to a post-concert dinner. The facility itself was rather primitive, rather like a huge garage or workshop. We were seated at low round tables.

Post-concert banquet

There was an abundance of local delicacies, including…

Black chicken feet! Mmmmm!!

We were officially greeted by the local pipe and drum corps. Yep, Scottish bagpipes. Remember, we’re just a few kms from Burma, a former British colony. Certain traditions die hard!

Drum and bugle corp, complete with bagpipes. Ever try eating haggis with chopsticks?

There were all kinds of officials in attendance, including the mayor and his entourage as well as a provincial cabinet minister. This meant endless rounds of toasts. We raised countless small (thank goodness for that) glasses of vodka in which either rice or cucumbers had marinated for some time. Quite pleasant, quite potent!

We hit the sheets about 1am! Next morning, off to a Buddhist temple…

Spectacular Buddhist temple in Mangshi

Water Splashing Festival (the civilized version)

Water Splashing Festival (the civilized version)

It turns out that the best jade in the world comes from Burma (Myanmar). So, of course we were taken to a jade market. The stuff is wildly expensive, so we just looked. The bonus was experiencing the Water Splashing Festival, an annual event in April, but only in the DeHong region. You walk around splashing water on people to cleanse them of evil thoughts and be assured of good health and prosperity for the coming year. As we entered the jade market, it all started out innocently enough, with 2 lovely young women gently sprinkling us with palm fronds dipped in water.

And then it soon degenerated into an all-out, free-for-all water fight…

Cleansed, really, really, cleansed during the Water Splashing Festival

Members of the orchestra, in particular my principal trumpeter, were soon aiding and abetting the local water sprinklers. It was all great fun, and by the time we got to the airport, we were mostly dried out. Before that, however, there was one final farewell luncheon for our entire party of about 90. Local officials in attendance, more toasts, invitations to return, good vibes…

Your typical 26 course Mangshi luncheon. Nice floral centrepiece, eh?

And then it was time to say goodbye to our generous and hospitable hosts. A short, intense and utterly delightful chapter had drawn to a close.

Soprano soloist and her new Canadian friend

Back to Kunming where it was cold and rainy (the rain is most welcome in drought-stricken Yunnan) and a few hours of rest before intensive rehearsals next day in preparation for another concert on the 13th. This event, in Victory Hall, a truly wonderful little concert hall (about 800 seats) was a kind of town hall meeting where the public was invited to listen to a series of state-of-the-city speeches by the mayor and members of Kunming City Council, and to witness the awarding of several honours to members of the community.

Victory Hall, Kunming

Victory Hall, Kunming

The concert itself went on for about 90 minutes. There were 16 numbers, 9 of which were Chinese with titles like: Jasmine Flower, Ode to Red Flag, Dianchi Lake Waltz, I love you China. The (to me) more familiar rep consisted of a couple of Strauss waltzes, the Khachaturian Masquerade Waltz, the Overture to Swan Lake and Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. At the end, we did the Radetzky March of Joh. Strauss Sr., and would you believe it, everyone clapped along, in true Viennese style! To conclude the evening, everyone stood to sing one of the Chinese national songs (not the national anthem, to be sure). This is the one that’s so well-known there’s no conductor’s score to be found anywhere…every Chinese conductor knows this sucker! So I was handed a 1st violin part from I conducted with great authority and musical insight.

Aprés-concert, Victory Hall, Kunming Two divas, Kunming City Council and one Canadian conductor

Whew! and then it was over, for a while, at least. This week I don’t see the orchestra at all. They’re spending the week as guinea pigs for a student conductor from Shanghai who needs an orchestra to practice on! Amazingly, the government pays the players for this period. I’m using the time off to immerse myself in score study for next week when we launch into intensive rehearsals for our next concert on April 27 in the Kunming Theatre, the city’s main concert facility. We’ll be doing the Schubert Unfinished as well as 2 Chinese works – the world premiere of a symphony by Lu Di, a delightful senior Yunnan composer who lives right here in Kunming. I met him last year and found him to be a civilized gentleman who was eager to engage me in conversation about contemporary music. His research into the music of the minorities in Yunnan reminds me ever so much of the kind of work Bartok and Kodaly were doing in Hungary a century ago. Lu Di’s score is handwritten (sigh) and not the easiest to read, but after what I’ve been through the past fortnight, nothing can faze me!

Kunming composer Lu Di. On April 27 he will hear his Symphony for the first time!

Earlier this week, I also met a brilliant pipa virtuosa who will be the soloist when we perform a rather famous Pipa Concerto by a triumvirate of Chinese composers: Lu Dehai (China’s most famous pipa player), Wang Yanqiao and Wu Zuqiang. It’s not uncommon for major works in China to have been composed by two or more people. This concerto was written right after the Cultural Revolution, in other words, in the mid to late 70s. It had its first US performance in Boston, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the BSO. The translation of the programmatic title is “Sisters of the Grasslands”, a reference to the landscape of Mongolia. My soloist is stunning – it was a joy to hear her complete command of this remarkable instrument.

My pipa soloist. Sorry this came out landscape. She really does stand up straight and tall!

And there you have it, an account of my first weeks here in Kunming. I came here thinking I had a pretty good idea what my assignment would be. Oh boy, was I wrong! Since arriving here on Good Friday, I’ve learned and conducted 25 pieces that were not in the original plan. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, exciting! In addition to all this, we find time to enjoy the environs and savour the unique cuisine of this exotic corner of the world. Springtime in Kunming is utterly divine. Life is good! Stay tuned!

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