China Report: The Three Orchestras

December 15, 2007 at 4:05 pm (Artist's News, Overseas Tour) (, , , , , )

Nigel Gaynor and I arrived in China ahead of the rest of the Company to rehearse the three Chinese orchestras who are performing during the tour.

Our first stop was Beijing, with the Symphony Orchestra of China Opera and Dance Drama Theatre, our first chance to practise our few words of Mandarin. When we did deliver a confident good morning in Mandarin on the first day, it went down very well indeed. I had practised during our short walk to the rehearsal studio, testing the patience of our wonderful translator, Cathy who had to correct my tones at least half a dozen times. But as many of the orchestral players speak conversational English, we are once again allowed to get away with not having learnt more Chinese in the seven years since our last tour to China with NBT. (The last tour in 2006, the Company used recorded music) Like any language, it’s easier to learn when you can immerse yourself in it, and when you can use it every day. Mandarin is especially difficult, but we find a little attempt goes a long way. Nigel always remembers how to say let’s have a break in Mandarin, and the orchestra always understand him and smile appreciatively.

The leader of the Beijing orchestra, aged just 20, is the youngest leader of a professional orchestra in China. And he is a hugely talented musician. When Nigel asked the orchestra manager whether they’d played Madame Butterfly before, he was reassured that the Beijing orchestra had indeed played it five years ago! But many of the players are too young to have been with the orchestra five years ago. After all, the leader would have been just fifteen! It took the full three days of rehearsals to finesse the demands of the score and the specific musical requirements for the ballet, but they are very committed to their musicianship and many of the players said how much they enjoyed playing Puccini for the first time. We are really looking forward to their performances.

Second, we went to Shanghai to rehearse the Shanghai Philharmonic. They are an excellent orchestra, and their oboe/cor anglais player has an extraordinarily beautiful sound. The rehearsals went very smoothly especially as they had performed the opera a few months ago. This gave us a few hours to enjoy the sights along Shanghai’s river and the Bund area of the city.

We then went to Hangzhou to rehearse the third orchestra who are not as familiar with the score. But their love of what they do is obvious and they are an affable lot whose leader is a woman of enormous energy and dedication. They were a real pleasure to work with.

One of the great lessons is that cultural exchange works both ways and I always find the rewards of this kind of collaboration where western music meets an eastern orchestra are much richer than one might at first expect. In the first instance, there are some pretty obvious differences. Chinese orchestral players simply don’t play some of the western instruments very often. The bass clarinet is one example. Another is the cor anglais. In Hangzhou, it seems the harp is not a widely played instrument, so their orchestra had to borrow a harp from Shanghai and hire a harpist from Beijing. And whilst Nigel is a guest working with these orchestras, he is also very focused on ensuring the orchestra will give the best performance possible. At times the usual rehearsal practice of stopping and starting seems to drive a few of the musicians mad, possibly because they don’t hear the wrong notes or understand why the tempo has to be just so. It takes patience, good communication skills, and ensuring the orchestra is involved all the way. One example of this involvement is to explain what is happening on stage during that specific passage in the score, so they understand why the drama is best expressed playing with a particular approach.

And of course there are regional cultural differences. Each of these orchestras has its own characteristic manner of playing. It’s probably not surprising that the Shanghai Philharmonic is very polished in a European style, given the long history of the meeting of east and west cultures in that huge and bustling city. The orchestra is very much at home playing Madame Butterfly; they play molto tenuto/sostenuto, or long full-valued notes. In Beijing the orchestra is more used to playing theatre music, so it was more a matter of guiding the difficult transitional passages in the score and bringing out their lyricism.

In Hangzhou, it was challenging as very few of the players had ever played Madame Butterfly and the orchestra has many young players who have far less professional experience than the other two orchestras. So Nigel stayed back after the first day to help some of the woodwind players rehearse the more difficult passages. I felt for the bass clarinet player who admitted not having ever played the instrument before. I admire their willingness to learn, their capacity for hard work – always with good humour, and the commitment of the players to succeed. They were very determined to deliver on the opening night in Wuxi. And they did, in spite of a tiny pit – so small that Nigel had to make the decision to lose five of the players because they simply couldn’t all fit in and play without the risk of serious injury. So some disappointed musicians had to watch from the auditorium. The pit also meant it was difficult to see and hear each other, and I imagine there were many first night nerves. But Nigel guided them through a solid performance. We’re all looking forward to the second performance in Hangzhou where the pit will be much kinder, and the whole orchestra will be able to play.

(Contributed by Diana Solano wife of NBT Assistant Music Director, Nigel Gaynor)

Diana Solano and Nigel Gaynor - Photo: Neil G Jarman


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