Orchestra Spotlight:
National Symphony in China

Saturday, June 20, 2019: Home at Last

Signs Signs to everywhere on a street in Seoul (click to enlarge)

Yesterday morning (was it only yesterday?) I went sightseeing in Seoul, in the Gyeongbok Palace area of the city. I found lovely quiet lanes, views of the mountains in the distance, and saw part of the changing of the guard at the palace. In the afternoon when I got back to the hotel, I ate a scallion pancake and treated myself to kiwi gelato. In the evening we had a runout concert to Goyang, where Hyun-Su Shin played the Mendelssohn concerto with us. She wowed the audience, and played an encore as well. We all hoped the bus ride back to the hotel would go more quickly since it was late at night, but Seoul is plagued with horrendous traffic even at 11pm. Most of us didn't fall into bed until midnight.

Guards Yvonne and Korean guards (click to enlarge)

There was a 6am luggage call, a quick breakfast, hotel checkout, and another hour on the bus to get to the airport this morning. Then the endless flight to get back to Washington. When we arrived, the pilot informed us there would be a 40 minute delay, but after that many hours in the air, what's a few more minutes? I watched two movies, read an entire book, ate the two meals and one snack that we were served, even napped 2-3 hours and still had hours to fill before we landed.

I don't know if there's an easy way to summarize a concert tour/cultural exchange such as we just finished. I was told that our sponsors at Dow felt it was worth the money they spent to have our orchestra in China. We certainly appreciated seeing China again after our last tour there, ten years ago. The halls we played in were first class, and the audiences were appreciative.

lake Korean palace view (click to enlarge)

There are personal changes that happen when you've been part of this kind of experience. Most of us took lots of photographs and ate new foods. When you get home you don't take things so much for granted, at least not for the first few days, such as having several rooms in your house, or laundry facilities and air conditioning. Many people in the orchestra were inspired to learn more about Korean or Chinese history, or paintings, or music, or the languages. And of course we have our shared experiences, such as taking the maglev train, or visiting the Great Wall. We didn't get to share those with our families, we shared them with our colleagues. Those experiences become part of the "orchestra lore" that every orchestra builds up.

I hope that each of you who virtually followed along feel that you were part of our trip as well. Until the next tour... Yvonne Caruthers

Friday, June 19, 2019: Seoul, Korea

Seoul Shopping Ginseng shop in Seoul (click to enlarge)

Tonight is our last concert of the tour, in Goyang, a suburb of Seoul. Last night we played at the Seoul Arts Center, another beautiful hall. It was our last concert with Nicolaj Znaider (we perform with a young Korean violinist this evening, Hyun-Su Shin.) It was also the last time we played Daniel Kellogg's new piece Western Skies. The Seoul audience was by far the most receptive to his piece of any audience we've played it for so far. I was sorry he had gone back to the US after our Xi'an concert--he would have loved to hear last night's applause for his piece.

shopping in Seoul Visual menus in Seoul (click to enlarge)

The Seoul Arts Center is a spacious (rather than compact) hall. I'm not sure exactly how many seats it has, but it felt larger than the other halls on this tour. Yet there is a "sweet spot" on stage, and Mr. Znaider seemed to be standing exactly in the center of it for his concerto. Every note spoke clearly, and he reveled in the chance to make the hall work for him--at the end the crowd roared their approval. He played a Bach encore, and it was a joy to hear how softly and elegantly he could play, and even those in the farthest corners could hear every detail. We're sure going to miss these halls when we get home: we have performances of Also Sprach Zarathustra next week in Washington.

Coffee prices Coffee prices in Seoul (click to enlarge)

In my last postcard I mentioned that I was going to take the maglev train from the terminal near our hotel to the Shanghai airport. What an amazing ride! As you can see from the photo, we reached the speed of 431 km/hr, but almost as soon as we reached that speed it was time to start slowing down to arrive at the airport station. The trip lasted less than 7 minutes, and those of us who took it wondered when we can hope for maglev service between Washington and NY, or NY and Chicago.

Today here in Seoul we have the day free until we leave for the concert this evening. There is a lot of great food to be eaten in this city, even if one often has to rely on pointing to the display dishes. And there is a lot of great shopping here too, including every conceivable product made from ginseng. It's a bit tricky to figure out prices since there are so many zeroes in use at the moment. I just had to take a photo of coffee prices at the airport because they sound so daunting, but KW1000 is only about 80 cents.

Wednesday, June 17,2019: Shanghai to Seoul

Our largest sponsor for this tour is the Dow Chemical Company, and the reception after last night’s concert was the first time most of the orchestra got to meet people from Dow. Jim McIlvenny, a VP from Dow and the man most responsible for Dow’s sponsorship of our tour, gave a short speech at the reception about the need for cooperation between China and the US. He thinks the arts are a great vehicle for helping people realize their similarities rather than their differences. He also observed that China needs creative solutions for the hurdles it faces, not just technical ones.

The hall where we performed, the Oriental Arts Center in Pudong, is as acoustically pleasing as the hall in Beijing. It was easy to hear ourselves and each other, the sound had a bloom to it.....AND the hall was sold-out. What a nice send-off as we leave this country!

Oriental Arts Center Oriental Arts Center (click to enlarge)

Yesterday afternoon two of my colleagues (Aaron Goldman, flute, and Steve Dumaine, tuba) and I performed at a school in Shanghai. The NSO had been asked by Dow if it was possible to show students the connections between math/science and music. Since that’s a program I do regularly at the Kennedy Center, I was contacted. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about what age would attend our program. I had specified that my program was for ages 9+, and was assured that though there might be students a bit younger, there might also be high school students, and since Chinese students are on average more advanced than American students when it comes to math-science, I should prepare a content-rich program. However, when the students arrived for the concert we were told “yes, they are 6-8 years old.” Luckily I had brought along my carbon fiber cello. Jim McIlvenny’s eyes lit up when I demonstrated it for the students, as Dow makes carbon fiber. After the students left he came over to inspect my cello, so I let him play it. It’s always a magical moment when an adult puts bow to string for the first time and coaxes a sound from the instrument.

Flower clock Flower clock in Century Park (click to enlarge)

There wasn’t much time for me to explore Shanghai, which is a pity, since it’s one of the great cities of the world. I did manage to catch a glimpse of Century Park (near our hotel), which has a famous “flower clock.” It's not merely decorative, it also shows the time. I also took the subway to the older part of the city, near the Bund, which is the colonial part of the city along the Huangpu River. But there is a lot of construction along the Bund as the city prepares for Expo 2010, so it wasn’t possible to even see the river.

The subway costs 4 yuan in Shanghai (twice as much as in Beijing), which is about 70 cents, and there is a bit less English to guide the non-Chinese, but it’s still very easy to use. At the concert last night it was fun to compare notes with my colleagues about areas of the city they had explored.

Pedestrian street in Shanghai Pedestrian street in Shanghai (click to enlarge)

Today we leave for Seoul, Korea, where we have our final two concerts for this tour. A few of us are going to take the maglev train to the airport. It’s the fastest train in the world, speeding along at 400+ km/hr, making the trip from the terminal in Pudong to the airport in 7 minutes. The rest of the NSO is taking a bus from the hotel to the airport--the estimated time for that trip is about 45 minutes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2019: Shanghai

Xi'an city walls Ancient city walls in Xi'an, still intact after centuries (click to enlarge)

It was hot in Xi’an on Sunday, nearly 100. The local people told us, “this is just the beginning of summer, it gets much hotter.” Like all large Chinese cities, Xi’an has bad traffic. And it seemed that nearly everywhere I looked I saw construction. I wish I could say that we overcame the heat and noise and dust to play a great concert, but I don’t think that concert will go on the record books as being our best.

I went for a walk early Monday morning, hoping to find a breath of cool air. It was cooler, and there was less traffic, so I walked to two of Xi’an’s most famous sights: the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. I also stumbled upon a mural showing the history of China (the modern era occupied less than 1/3 of the mural).

terra-cotta chariot Chariot from terra- cotta warriors museum (click to enlarge)

Xi’an is one of the last walled cities anywhere, and the entire old city wall is intact, spectacularly so. But surely the most compelling reason to visit Xi’an is its proximity to the Museum of the Terra-Cotta Warriors. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that visiting this site is approximately equivalent to visiting King Tut’s tomb before its contents were moved to museums. I mentioned in a previous post that a new group of warriors has recently been unearthed at the museum. But it’s not just at the museum that new finds are being made. Our guide told us that the Xi’an airport has banned any new construction around it because more artifacts have been discovered there.

Mural detail Xi'an mural showing the history of China (click to enlarge)

Unfortunately our visit to the museum was brief as we had a flight to catch to Shanghai. We landed at 6:30 pm in what looked like thick fog--the street lights were already on. I’m not familiar with the weather here, but there’s a distinct possibility that this is not fog, but smog.

I’m scheduled to visit a school today to perform with two of my colleagues, Aaron Goldman, flute, and Steve Dumaine, tuba. Our tour sponsors requested outreach programs here in Shanghai, so my group is doing one event, and 4 violinists are doing a couple of events as well.

Comments (Click to Hide)

on the list of essentials for that flight, consider noise-canceling earphones (e.g. Bose). When I went in '05, they saved my sanity (and my ears!)
Karen Casey, Memphis Symphony Orch
violacasey on June 2, 2019 at 12:21 PM
Liked reading Caruthers' log. But this comes at a price. Less sleep and/or less down time for her. It is not worth it.
crismassine on June 9, 2019 at 6:53 PM
Here is a short review, from Macau Daily Times, Wed., June 10, 2019, in the event you have not come across it: http://www.macaudailytimesnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=28612&Itemid=28

crismassine on June 10, 2019 at 9:29 AM
crismassine on June 10, 2019 at 9:33 AM
Three pic, credit to the official party organ, the Xin Hua News, Entertainment section:

www.chinaview.cn 2019-06-12 09:44:49
pic 1.Group pic;
pic 2.Fischer and Marissa "had a little lamb" Regini;
pic 3.Caruthers, Honigberg, Znaider, and 1st violin section (partial).

I can't seem to be able to copy the link.
crismassine on June 12, 2019 at 8:38 PM
From news.cultural-china.com

News Center US National Symphony Orchestra's China encoreSource: Global Times [2019-06-05 10:45:08]
Conductor Ivan Fischer

Ten years after the US National Symphony Orchestra visited China for the first time in January 1999, the orchestra is coming back to China, bringing its excellent performances to China's National Center for the Performing Arts on June 11 and 12.

The orchestra's second visit to China is part of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Sino-US diplomatic ties and also marks the 50th anniversary of the orchestra's first international tour to Latin America in 1959.

As one of the top orchestras in the world, the US National Symphony Orchestra was established in 1931 and has taken part in many momentous events such as ceremonial state affairs and US presidential inauguration ceremonies. The US National Symphony Orchestra has held regular performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC since the center opened in 1971 and is known for offering one of the country's most extensive musical educations.

World-renowned conductor Ivan Fischer will lead the orchestra in this performance. Fischer began his tenure as principal conductor in autumn 2008. He earned international acclaim as music director of the respected Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO), which he founded in 1983.

While politicians in both Washington and Beijing have attached much significance to the event, Fischer remains low-key.

"For me, every single concert is equally important. I don't want to relate music to politics and those passionate audiences count most in my view," he explained.

"The most inspiring thing is that there are many more western classical music enthusiasts than I have expected. When my assistant told me that, I couldn't even believe it myself."

Talking about the performing team, Fischer noted, "We come from different countries, but that is not important. In my view, people from different cultural backgrounds can present classical music together. Music has the magic to establish human relations."

Besides the performance in Beijing, the US National Symphony Orchestra will continue their China tour with performances in Xi'an on June 14 and in Shanghai on June 16.

crismassine on June 15, 2019 at 11:19 AM
We did. It was a lot of extra work & time on Caruthers' part.

Glad to hear about the safe landing, although it would have been even better if it had been on time.

Have a terrific weekend.
crismassine on June 21, 2019 at 1:45 PM

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