COLLEGE CHAPEL CHOIR TOUR TO CHINA
Sitting on the flight home following our two-week concert tour of China my main concern is how the boys are going to readjust to a life without large groups of female fans following them around. They were treated like celebrities for much of the trip and bringing them back to reality at the next early morning choir rehearsal is going to be a challenge.
Our tour was organised at the China end by British Education, a company founded William Vanbergen OE. Working in collaboration with Philip Highy they had come up with an imaginative itinerary which involved cultural exchange activities in host schools as well as eight concerts in five different cities.
Our first host school was the intriguingly named Beijing Experimental School. Having decided to fight through the jet lag, our welcome dinner was followed by a two-hour rehearsal which finished at 9pm (5am UK time).
The next day began with a trip to the Great Wall. It quickly became apparent that we were the only Westerners in the area, and that the hordes of Chinese tourists seemed more interested in taking photos of the boys than of the Great Wall itself.
Our first concert at the Experimental School in the evening was a sell-out and very well received. Richard Gowers’ two Chinese folk song arrangements were an immediate hit with the audience. Spontaneous applause and cheers greeted the opening bars of the Kang Ding Love Song. Our second concert at the experimental school the next day included performances of Allegri’s Miserere and the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. Like all of our concerts the evening began with several speeches given by educational leaders and party officials.
The next day we flew to Chengdu where we were guests of two schools including Oxford International College, one of the new flagship schools set up by British Education. The rice paddies, clearly visible from the plane as we made our descent, were a welcome break from highly urbanised Beijing. The welcome we received in Chengdu was extraordinary, with pupils greeting us at the airport with large banners. The boys spent the morning in lessons and seemed to be greeted by screaming girls wherever they went. The concert in the evening included a set from the Incognitos whose attire (School Dress) went down well with the enthusiastic young audience. The Party Secretary for Chengdu Province, who sat in the front row, was spotted conducting throughout our performance of I was glad.
The boys spent the first part of the following morning engaged in cultural exchange activities at Oxford International College. We then moved on to one of the country’s most important giant panda sanctuaries, accompanied by members of our host schools. There were more panda escapades to come later when our rehearsal in the impressive Jiaozi Concert Hall was unexpectedly and somewhat bizarrely interrupted by twelve techno dancing girls dressed in giant panda suits. The concert itself was a great success and the evening culminated in a joint performance of the Eton Boating Song with a youth choir from Chengdu.
The next day saw us move on to the city of Hangzhou. We were met at the airport by our very own Eton College Choir tour bus, emblazoned on both sides with alarmingly large photographs of the choir. In the afternoon pupils from our host school (‘Hangzhou No. 2 School’) accompanied us on a trip to the West Lake, a beautiful and peaceful expanse of water overlooked by pagodas on the surrounding hillsides. Later we were treated to another welcome dinner in a local hotel. While the main course, sea cucumber, was not an immediate hit, I was very impressed to see that nearly all of the choir at least tried it.
The following morning was spent in our host school who had laid on an amazing selection of activities. A particular favourite was Kung Fu. The evening concert, proved to be a real highlight of the tour. We had originally been booked to appear in a concert hall, but ticket sales were so good that we had to be transferred to the large opera house next door. The venue was stunning and the concert was a great success, with highlights including sung Duruflé Motets and Britten’s Jubilate in C. At the end of the concert we were joined by the Hangzhou No 2 choir for another performance of the Eton Boating Song. Despite the success of the concert, for many, the great highlight of the day was finding a Costa Coffee shop. By the time they left it had been entirely stripped of everything edible.
The following day we set off by road for our next host city, Changzhou. I was amazed to see that, despite the early start, many of the girls from Hangzhou No 2 school had turned out to wave us off. In fact it quickly emerged they had only come to see the youngest members of the choir, who had by this stage reached legendary status on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. On arrival we were immediately whisked into a very grand welcome banquet hosted by the newly appointed mayor of the city. The afternoon and evening were spent rehearsing and relaxing in the hotel.
Day ten saw the choir split into two groups for cultural exchanges with Changzhou High School and Changzhou Qianhuang school. Again there was an exciting range of activities on offer including the chance to learn a traditional Chinese musical instrument. The concert that evening took place in another large concert hall, the Changzhou Grand Theatre. Our performance was preceded by performances from various groups based in the province. Somewhat bizarrely we found ourselves following a Kung Fu fighting act who performed a very acrobatic routine to the accompaniment of the theme music from Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m not sure what Purcell would have made of it, but it was certainly an interesting juxtaposition of styles. The programme for the concert included Howell’s Take him earth for cherishing which was rapidly becoming a tour favourite.
On the following day we moved on to our final host city, Shanghai. Our hosts in Shanghai were YK Pao school, a beautiful new school founded by another OE, Philip Sohmen. It has to be said that from the moment we first saw the city it was obvious that the final few days would be very special. The skyline as we drove in was so stunning that even F block looked up from their Nintendo DS games (well, briefly). An afternoon concert for the pupils at Jian Ping School included a memorable performance of Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse given by Richard Gowers. The concert was followed by a trip to the tailors where many members of the choir were measured up for shirts and suits. Dinner in central Shanghai was followed by an impromptu street-corner sing-off with a Chinese choir who just happened to be in the area.
On the morning of day 12 we visited the Yu Garden area of the city before heading to our final concert back at the school. A very young audience enjoyed a varied programme which included pieces by Rachmaninov, Britten and Howells as well as the usual contribution of close harmony numbers from the Incognitos.
Having given eight concerts in ten days, the next day was spent sightseeing and relaxing a little. Everyone scaled the dizzying heights of the TV tower to gain amazing views of the city (and the nighttime river cruise was particularly memorable. The farewell party provided us with a chance to thank some of our hosts and the staff at British Education who had worked so hard to make the tour a success.
Our final day in China saw us venture into the countryside to visit a charming water village, it was a beautiful end to the tour. Those in need of more culture explored the Shanghai Museum others preferred to practice their new found powers of haggling in a local market. Our final tour dinner, held on the top floor restaurant of a local hotel, culminated predictably with a sing-along around the piano, with the Shanghai skyline forming a backdrop.
Thanks must go to our tour manger, Philip Highy, for whom nothing was too much trouble during our two-week tour.
We take with us wonderful memories of the concerts and the incredible welcome shown to us, as well as newly found talents in the fields of haggling and Kung Fu.