Howard's Blog

Three Pieces in the Shape of Kunming

  • March 10, 2012

With apologies to Erik Satie and his whimsically titled Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear, let me recount for you three musical events of the last two days which typify the stark contrasts of this amazing part of the world. Satie’s composition, despite its title, actually consists of 7 piano pieces, so perhaps you will excuse my beginning with a Prologue and ending with a Coda. Let’s call the “Three Pieces…” Exposition, Development, and Scherzo (the latter to be taken in the original German sense of  the word (as in “Scherz” or joke). So, my 3 pieces are in fact 5.

1. Prologue

We continue to be flabbergasted by the infinite variety of life in this city of teeming humanity, by the ostentatious wealth and the grinding poverty, by China’s vastly rich history and its determination to build a future. The streets are gridlocked much of the time (especially Friday night, we discovered yesterday while attempting to get to a Kunming Symphony Orchestra concert, more about which later) with a jaw-dropping conglomeration of BMWs, motorbikes with entire families on them, Porsches, carts, buses, cabs (most of them long-in-the-tooth VW Jettas). The other night we were sitting in Salvador”s (a favorite hangout for foreigners), enjoying a delicious Italian pasta dish and some decent red wine (Kunming is most decidedly not an oenophile’s paradise!), when from the kitchen came one of the waiters right past our table carrying a huge bucket of slop, presumably taking it somewhere to dispose of it. None of the diners seemed the least perturbed, so we just continued with our meal as well. Things that would have horrified us 10 days ago are now the new norm (how about that alliteration?). We find the people to be friendly and helpful to the extent they can be to dumb foreigners who don’t speak Mandarin. Maggie”s iPad has an absolutely indispensable app where she types an English word or phrase and up pops the Mandarin translation (both visually and in audio, if you so choose). So you get into a cab and show the driver your iPad. Works like a charm!

2. Exposition

Thursday was my first rehearsal with the Yunnan Arts University Orchestra. Let’s just say that the Berlin Philharmonic can rest easy! This is going to be very basic, note by note, chord by chord hard work. The only music distributed for that rehearsal was the 1st movement of the Beethoven Sym. No. 1. They were sight-reading and I have a very strong hunch the vast majority had neither heard, nor heard of  the piece. It starts with a mercifully slow introduction before the Allegro kicks in. Believe me, I milked those opening 12 measures of Adagio molto as long as I dared. Mind you, even there we encountered some interesting challenges. The clarinet parts that had been downloaded from the internet were in C, and wouldn’t you know it, my 2 clarinetists had Bb clarinets. So their parts came out sounding a tone too low. You could say it was an unplanned Schoenbergian moment! So, for the rest of the rehearsal I suggested the clarinetists just listen and try to get started transposing the parts for next rehearsal. My sense was that they are able to do this. Who knows, I may yet spend some hours writing out new clarinet parts for the Beethoven symphony. The balance in the string section leaves something to be desired: 12 firsts, 12 seconds, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 1 double bass. And I have 7 (count ’em, SEVEN) French horns. Mahler, here we come! I was told just before the rehearsal started that the level of playing was not very high. That, dear reader, was an understatement of monumental proportions! However, as with the choir two days earlier, I was delighted by the enthusiasm and eagerness of these young musicians. I have about 1000 CDs in my iTunes library, so I naively asked whether I should burn a CD for them which they could then copy to their hearts’ content. I realized what a techno-Luddite I am when I was politely informed that they all have MP3 players and they would be happy to download anything I asked them to. The plan is to learn the entire symphony as well as the Mozart G+ Violin Concerto, not to mention the choral repertoire (Mozart Requiem and a few Messiah choruses). That may be rather too rich a diet, but we shall see. This coming week will be very interesting when I find out whether the singers and instrumentalists have actually been working on their own.

3. Development

Last night we were invited to a performance by the Kunming Nei Er Symphony Orchestra (Nei Er is the composer of the Chinese national anthem). I was eager to hear them, because it’s been almost 13 years since I worked with them during the International Festival of the Arts in Kunming, and of course I will be conducting them again for a concert in May. At that time they were pretty rough, if truth be told. Well, what a thrilling surprise awaited us. They are not to be recognized from what they were back in 1999. They are a large, fully professional orchestra, the result of a merger of 2 Kunming orchestras that occurred several years ago. Their programme was challenging and, I thought, rather on the esoteric side. It consisted exclusively of the Viola Concertos by Walton and Bartok, respectively. These are works you hear only rarely anywhere – to hear both of them on one concert in Kunming is pretty much unbelievable. As were the performances themselves. There were 2 soloists, both from Beijing, both in their 30s (I think), and both incredibly impressive. Their technical mastery of these demanding 20th century landmark works was overwhelming and so was their consummate musicianship. Both of us were blown away. During the intermission we went backstage to congratulate the members of the orchestra, and were thrilled that many of them remembered us from 1999! They seemed genuinely pleased that we will be making music together again. Needless to say, I can hardly wait for my rehearsals with them to begin, but that won’t be until well into May.

The Kunming Theatre is a moderately good concert hall, seating about 800. Unfortunately, there were no more than 200 people in attendance. I’m told it’s difficult to attract audiences to symphony concerts in Kunming. The entire orchestra is state-subsidized, so they don’t have to worry about their salaries (such as they are). I think some of their box office woes have to do with poor programming and almost non-existent marketing. They have expressed some interest in my taking on a kind of advisory role (in addition to conducting the May concert), so we’ll see what we can do.

4. Scherzo

After the concert, Maggie and I headed out into a spectacular, warm spring evening. The streets and sidewalks were jammed with late night revelers. It took us 45′ to get a cab to take us back to our apartment (cabs are ridiculously cheap…about $2.50 each way for a 15 minute ride). But what transpired made the wait more than worthwhile. No sooner had we climbed in, but the cab driver began singing what must surely have been a Chinese folksong. At first I thought it would be pentatonic, but then I heard a semi-tone between the 5th and 6th degrees of the scale and I knew it was in the aeolian mode. He would finish a stanza, and then, having produced a considerable quantity of phlegm with his vocalizing, would spit out onto the street before launching into the next stanza! We were grateful for open windows and no unexpected gusts of wind! These expectorations added a certain percussive variety to the performance! Let us just say the whole experience was unique!

5. Coda

Today we did some necessary shopping for basics at Metro, a Costco-like store of mammoth proportions. Everything is there, from shoes to automotive parts to large octopus to live turtles for a delicious soup. (We passed on the octopus and turtles.)

Tomorrow we plan to explore the Green Lake park area which is a short walk from our place. Then, on Monday, we are invited to hear a concert at the old university campus by a band from Finland, followed by a rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata at which I may be asked to do some conducting/coaching. We will also meet with senior university officials about my possible involvement at the old campus (some of the classes are still being taught there) as well as Maggie’s teaching English to a number of post-graduate students who are contemplating further studies abroad. That will be followed by their taking us out to dinner which will no doubt be another culinary adventure.

And so it goes, each day full of new surprises and delights.

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required

Please leave these two fields as-is: