Chamber Orchestra Visit to China 5 – 13 July 2010

After a few days of intensive rehearsals at the end of the Summer Half, the 20-strong Chamber Orchestra flew out to China taking up an invitation to play in the Shanghai Concert Hall and at the Expo 2010 Music Festival, modestly known as the ‘transnational music festival of the century’. Lead by Jack Rozman (Head of Strings) and accompanied by Simon Dean, Sue and Stuart Lowe and Martin Lewis, the team arrived in Shanghai in the early morning of 5th July.

Extracts from Mrs Lowe’s diary: Day 1: For the first two days the boys were allocated to ‘home stay’ families in order to have some experience of ordinary Chinese life. Suspect they were spoilt: they came back with gifts and tales of new friendships. World Cup undoubtedly an ice-breaker! Meanwhile the staff discovered that our somewhat Spartan but comfortable hotel – the Jing Jiang Inn – could provide a decent Viennese iced coffee! The Shanghai skyline is awesome. High rise flats and office buildings as far as the eye can see, the inner ring-road on stilts, traffic quite congested, VWs and Audis in abundance. All of this landscape seems to be new, indeed guide tells us that the city has grown from 10 to 20 million in less than ten years! They planted 20 million trees to ‘green’ the city ready for the Expo. Simon observes that GB is ‘doomed’! Day 2: We all met up at Nanyang Model High School where the orchestra rehearsed its programme and later in the morning was joined by the pipa soloist, Miss Wong. One of the pieces in the Shanghai programme is “Moonlit River in Spring”, for pipa and orchestra. The pipa is a beautiful, ethereal sounding instrument like a lute but with deeper frets and played in an upright position. Miss Wong is one of the leading players and performed with delicate flourishes and a calmness very suited to the piece. Lunch, courtesy of the school headmaster, is a lavish meal with innumerable dishes. Didn’t take to the eels (not peeled) and glad I had swallowed the mushrooms which were in fact some sort of turtle. Boys pair up with the Nanyang orchestra for rehearsal of the Butterfly Lovers Concerto, the violin concerto written by Chen Gang, China’s most famous composer. The soloist is Max Wong (OE, JMN) who played it at a school concert in 2006 and had recently performed it in Boston. How lovely to see the two cultures united through music! And Max having finished (already!) his degree at Harvard. Weather continues hot and sultry but bearable.

Day 3: Concert day. Boys checked into hotel after home-stays and straight to Shanghai Concert Hall for rehearsals. Posters announcing (Chairman?) Jack Rozman abound. Clearly a famous figure. The hall had been ‘relocated’ stone by stone to a new site in the city centre. In the hall I smile because the first thing I see is a banner across the back of the stage with old picture of Eton College Chamber Orchestra with Tim beaming out at me (editor: Tim Lowe mi [1999- 2004] Mrs Lowe’s son). Rehearsal followed by Macdonald’s packed lunch (yuk). The boys went off for ‘communication’ with Expo performers. Oxford University Big Band players wouldn’t talk to them and their yobbish behaviour confirmed a few days later (see Day 6). Rehearsal of the Butterfly Lovers concerto with Nanyang orchestra goes well. The conductor, 86 year old Cao Peng, very fierce and commanding – famous in China. Had chat with Max’s mother and confirmed that mothers always worry about their children! Evening concert was remarkable. Hall was full. Stuart had ticket on back row of balcony and surprised at the capacity there, maybe 2,000. Audience etiquette ‘different’ – chatting all the way through so concert held to background buzz. Eton orchestra played first half – Handel, Britten, Walton, Fletcher and the Chen Gang pipa work. Boys play to their very highest standard. Following, JR interviewed on stage by television news anchor person (numerous translations) and Eton presents Professor Chen with a surprise performance of the best known piece of music in China, “Rose, Rose I Love You.” 1930’s Chinese pop composed by Chen Gang’s father, brilliantly arranged for Chamber Orchestra by Richard Gowers. Tears and hugs from Professor Chen. More speeches and then the Butterfly Lovers ending with a Nanyang rendition of Pomp and Circumstance… wonder whether this was tribute to Britain or whether China rules the waves! Afterward Mrs Wong put on reception for us at marvellous ‘West End’ club and boys glad of a cool drink! Late to bed. Day 4: Coach to Expo site which stretches for miles on both sides of the river. Various music groups to perform in programme beginning at 5.00pm. The site on Exposition Square is open air, like Hyde Park, with powerful amplification. After rehearsal and sound check on huge stage, much hanging around and lunch. Boys then disappeared to the other side of the river to visit the Expo pavilions. Prefer to stay in air-conditioned tent. Stuart went with boys. Bus under river tunnel. Stuart reported tens of thousands of people, mostly Chinese on holiday. Many ‘wacky’ pavilions from every country on Earth on a site larger than Monaco … queues so long no time to go inside. His group opted to find the British pavilion, miles away. ‘Rammed’ into shuttle buses and said pavilion turns out to be representation of a dandelion seed head. Unsure as to this symbolism. Time pressing they returned passing hangar-like pavilion of North Korea, which was closed! After packed Chinese supper boys gave performances of their programme at 6.10 and 9.10 pm by which time it was dark. Lovely moments after playing, with Brisbane Big Band plus Chinese girls all wanting photos with boys in school dress. Cooler evening suddenly lit with amazing lighting effect – tower blocks glowing with coloured patterns that change, the river bridge seemingly on fire and amazing huge water fountains dancing in time to Beethoven 9! Late to bed again…boys beginning to feel the pace…me definitely. (note to self – remember to write to Nottingham University Ningbo Club about some of their performance which was third rate and their behaviour afterwards…noisy while we played and I was embarrassed by them). Day 5: Early check-out from hotel, instruments on coach and sightseeing day in Shanghai. Went to City Museum full of Chinese cultural artefacts. For me highlight was unbelievable, almost pristine 3,000 year-old ceramic pots with beautiful shimmering glazes. Sat down for rest and lovely little girl, guess about 7, spoke to Stuart. ‘You English?’ Followed by 10 minutes of gentle discussion relayed to her mother. She was very composed and confident in her beginner’s English. Noted her bright eyes and slender fingers like many of the Chinese girls (she plays the piano), rather delicate and fine. She told us all Chinese school children are learning English! After lunch went to ‘The Bund’ which (despite its name) was the centre of the British concession after the Opium War. View across the river was stunning. TV building was tallest in Asia until recently, miles of high buildings in Norman Foster style…makes New York look like a village. Pinch myself as reminder that this is a Communist state. This appears to be the future! On to tea-tasting demonstration which reminded me (as Museum) what a long and deep culture this is. For some strange reason we took over-night train to Beijing. …(thinks, why not fly?) Boarded bullet-style train although nearly left William Clark-Maxwell who dropped his ticket onto the track! Calmed him down and a spare ticket thankfully produced. Some boys seem unable to function without losing passes, tickets etc. Only one passport left behind and one violin on coach about to disappear! Uncomfortable night in cabin with two bunks but must have slept as the ten hours went by somehow. Day 6: Met from train by Eddie Zhou, our guide who we befriend over next few days, a remarkable man, journalist and poet. It seems that the orchestra is to play another concert! As we are weary Jack insists we check-in at hotel, take a shower and find breakfast. Hotel is ‘Holiday Inn Business Hotel’ and much more comfortable than Shanghai. Then coach to the Palace of Culture in the Xicheng District of Beijing. This is old style communist cultural event – youth groups including our Australian friends and the unfortunate Big Band from Oxford University. Western groups interspersed with Chinese performers including a drumming band and a delightful teenage youth orchestra, beautifully dressed. Only problem is that as with much of the visit no-one seems to know how long for or when we are to play until almost the last minute! Begins with introduction of city Party officials who receive a fanfare and clapping. Boys and Jack take it in their stride and play a shortened programme. Following this there is a presentation to the groups. Jack and Michael Twaddle ushered on stage and presented with a carved scroll. Jack very angry with Oxford University group who seem to think this is all rather a joke and have no idea how to behave. Unnecessarily disrespectful of what is clearly a serious formality. After this, tourism begins and we visit the ‘Summer Palace’ – the summer residence of the third Ming Dynasty Emperor. Impressive huge lake and lotus flowers. Eddie arranges for us to go to see Chinese acrobats and this is quite unbelievably skilful display of strength and balance. Finishes with ‘wall of death’ motorcycles inside a big globe…in the end 7 bikes criss-crossing…very noisy and very nerve-racking! Day 7: Early call and coach trip of over an hour to site of the Great Wall. Unfortunately it is another overcast, sultry day, with intermittent showers. Opt out of this as on arrival discover there is a chair lift to the site! Stuart reports back that the wall is in clouds, there is nothing to see and Simon and he decide not to exert themselves as there are many steps and just have a wander for a little way. Then back to Beijing and visit the Ming tombs. Then Tian’ an Men Square and the Imperial Palace (the so called ‘Forbidden City’). Under gaze of Chairman Mao’s portrait we have group photograph. The square stretches as far as the eye can see and Eddie tells us he was there when the student demonstration was broken up. He was sure there were two sides to this story. The Forbidden City is very crowded but awesome in scale and makes a great impression. Again the sense of Chinese culture measured in thousands of years. (Note to self: view again ‘The Last Emperor’ which was filmed here). Later boys opt for shopping in tourists market where tee-shirts are offered at 250 Yuan and the game is to knock the price down to 20 or even 10 (about £1). Final meal and note that my chop stick technique has significantly improved during the week. Day 8: Eddie chaperones us to the Airport for 11.15 flight. Impressed by the massive Norman Foster building made for the Olympics. Farewells to him and then long flight home. Overall impression is of a vibrant nation. Bright, intelligent and confident due to its cultural depth but also great ambition. State managed capitalism clearly very successful but of course we did not see rural life and were closely steered. Air quality in Beijing very poor. Detailed organization was chaotic with changes of programme almost by the hour. Jack coped brilliantly with this and led from the front, being very firm in what we needed and got the best out of the orchestra under tough circumstances. Simon (“a real Englishman” quote from home-stay family!) managed the boys quietly and watchfully and did not lose anyone… despite near misses. A happy excursion, packed with events, impressions, music and thoroughly tiring!

Sue Lowe