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Orchestra's tour of China hits high notes

Half-way through their tour of China this summer, members of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra began to compile their own Letterman-like list of Top Tens. As their tour bus wound through the streets of Shanghai and Guilin, cellists and flautists took turns completing the group's official logbook entry, "You know you've been on tour too long when. . . ."

10. You don't bat an eye when the bus driver knocks down a bicyclist.

9. You respond 'which one is that?' when asked to pass a fork.

8. You buy season tickets to the Beijing Opera.

7. You entertain aspirations of becoming a street vendor.

6. You actually try the mysterious slippery seafood without asking what it is.

5. You sing along in Chinese while playing the encore folk song.

4. Your tux starts to grow mold.

3. Out of habit, you automatically put your luggage in the hotel hall by 1 a.m.

2. You stop watching [conductor] Karla and start counting the number of people who are talking in the first four rows.

1. You have the Mozart symphony memorized, and you don't even play in it.

If the logbook entries and remembered anecdotes are reliable indicators, the orchestra's June 21 - July 8 tour was a symphonic success. Not to mention the music.

"The playing exceeded my wildest dreams," said director Karla Lemon. "There was the kind of synergy that has to happen when you're performing the same program for the sixth and seventh time.

"With professional musicians, our artistic level might have reached an earlier plateau," she added. "But with this group, things improved and just kept getting better, because that's what they wanted to have happen."

The orchestra played, ate and went sightseeing at full tempo from the moment they hit the tarmac in Beijing. After the 20-hour flight from the West coast, senior Elisabeth Christensen helped to shepherd everyone through customs and immigration and onto buses waiting to take them to dinner. She'd just settled into her own hotel room that night when she and Alison Hu, as co-chairs of the members committee, had a midnight call from the woman who would emcee the performance the following evening.

Could they help with her translation?

Sure, they'd love to.

At 3 a.m. they were still loving it.

The surprises continued as tour managers tried to coordinate 100 people and several tons of instruments. Bus drivers got lost, players packed their plane tickets inside checked baggage, tubas didn't fit in cargo holders, ceiling fans drowned out attempted rehearsals and emergency meetings of the local Communist Party held up performances. But the show went on.

From the opening measures of the fanfare by American composer Joan Tower, to the closing adagio lamentoso of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, director Lemon was on her toes, baton ticking. The opening performance at Beijing's Concert Hall had its share of unexpected moments.

"We didn't know until it happened that the first concert in Beijing would be broadcast on national television, so there was no time to get nervous about it," said Lemon. "I was sharing a dressing room that evening with the announcer - a beautiful woman who spent all the time getting her hair done and practicing saying 'Karla Lemon' - and there I was, schlepping back and forth with my metronome."

That concert introduced orchestra members to applause Chinese style. In addition to chatting throughout the program, the audience seemed to enjoy clapping politely between movements and saving their biggest hand for the final encore.

"For the first few concerts, we had to keep reminding ourselves not to get discouraged, especially with the first piece," Lemon said. "It was only four minutes long and the audience seemed to be caught off guard when it ended. There was polite clapping like, 'Well, gee, is there another movement or what?'

"Then, toward the end of the concert, when we were beginning to think, 'Maybe it's time to get out of here,' they'd suddenly let loose, and you'd realize that they had saved up all their joy and enthusiasm."

In fact, the applause lasted so long after the encores in one hall that Lemon finally had to pull the concertmaster off the stage with her. "We simply didn't have anything more to play."

Chance encounters on the streets and campuses beyond the concert stages ranked high on the list of memories for orchestra members.

  • On a visit to Tiananmen Square one morning, violinst Jeff Chan broke out his rollerblades to streak past the monumental buildings that frame the 100 acre site, receiving surprised stares and applause.
  • Adrenaline-pumped orchestra members made a post-concert escape one night to the capital's Hard Rock Cafe and to a nearby pounding disco, where they found themselves politely shoved into the spotlights.
  • When the locks and hinges broke off some of the instruments' travel boxes, and the combined expertise of former Boy Scouts and mechanical engineering majors couldn't come up with a solution, several uniformed Chinese guards stepped in to whip up knots that held for the rest of the trip.
  • On a visit to Qing Hua University, the orchestra's Chinese hosts kept disappearing, to be replaced by new shifts of guides. It turned out that final exams were in progress, and everyone wanted a chance to show the visitors around campus.
  • In Shanghai, a group of players strolling by the waterfront after an evening concert met up with more Chinese students who'd just finished final exams. Together the two groups compared campus notes and talked of aspirations for the future until 2 a.m.

For Matt Springer, a molecular pharmacology postdoc who plays in the percussion section and who served as the very official Tour Cargo Coordinator, the highlight of the trip was a visit to Beijing University (Beida). After running out of time on the campus tour, he figured he had missed his chance to buy a Beida T-shirt - and so was overwhelmed to find one waiting for him at his hotel when he returned late that night. The accompanying note read: "In all, the meeting of us is not so nervous as I imagined before but full of sincere friendship and great happiness."

Cellist Alison Hu, who speaks Mandarin and often was pressed into translating service, said she was intrigued by the questions she got from college students and shop clerks, all of whom seemed amazed to discover that there is a distinct Asian American culture in the United States.

For Barbara Greenwood, who went along as representative for the Stanford Music Guild and soon was answering to "mom," the students' interaction and support of one another was as much fun as the sightseeing.

"I was really astounded at how nice they were to each other."

Chinese-born composer Chen Yi accompanied the tour to hear the orchestra perform Antiphony, her work that was commissioned last year by the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic and weaves traditional Chinese folk tunes into a modern American context. She, too, filled her share of ad-hoc slots. She translated for Lemon at radio interviews and masters' classes, and often could be spotted in the balconies of concert halls, listening for the percussion section's emphases.

"Chen Yi did everything from taking bows after her piece, to negotiating with various building supervisors to get the air conditioning turned on in time for concerts," Lemon said.

Audiences of 2,000 and more consistently filled the halls and the orchestra drew on two encores everywhere they went.

"We had a Chinese folk tune that everyone knows, and then ended with the last movement of a piece by Ravel," Lemon said. "It's called the 'Mother Goose Suite,' and it's a slow, sustained, beautiful work that builds to a nice C major climax.

"That way, everybody goes home happy and calm."



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