Memories of China

by David Thies-Thompson, National Arts Centre Orchestra

On October 4 the National Arts Centre Orchestra embarked on a monumental tour of China. This 18-day tour included the major cities: Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai but also took us to Guangzhou, Chongqing, Fuling, and Tianjin.

The vast scale and enormity of these cities was quite overwhelming! The traffic was simply unlike anything most of us had experienced, both in volume and driving style. All we could discern is that the first to the intersection has right of way (and that the horn is both brake and turn signal!). We thankfully didn’t witness any accidents and cars appear in excellent condition, so the locals seem to be just fine with the rules of the road. There were bicycles, but far fewer than I had anticipated; cars really are a predominant feature, unfortunately. We did learn that in Beijing there are limited numbers of new cars allowed for purchase, and that, interestingly, depending upon the last digit of the license plate, the car must not be driven one assigned day of the week. Our guide to the Great Wall noted that he takes his ‘‘BMW’’ to work in Beijing (Bus/ Metro/Walk.)

We played a joint concert with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Even with only one rehearsal, it was a successful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. NACO accompanied cellist Amanda Forsyth for Alexina Louie’s ‘‘Bringing the Tiger Down From The Mountain II,’’ a fitting piece given the setting. John Estacio joined the orchestra on tour. His composition ‘‘Brio: Toccata and Fantasy for Orchestra’’ was warmly received at every performance of the work. 

Fuling, a ‘‘tiny’’ rural outpost, with a population of six to seven million, was a two-hour run-out from Chongqing. We performed in the newly constructed concert hall (the stench of fresh paint was still present). Much of the city had been relocated up a steep hillside due to the flooding of the Three Gorges Dam project. It was evident that we were the first western orchestra to perform here. The audience was completely unfamiliar with Western concert etiquette, with audience members texting, talking, and walking around. During the tutti of the Mozart Concerto, Maestro Zukerman had to shush them before his solo entry. Even before the concert, when we were ready to tune, the huge video monitors on either side of the stage came alive with ads for an upcoming hip hop show and for Audis – it was hilarious! The Tianjin and Beijing concert halls, on the other hand, were beautiful, ultra modern, and state of the art, with exquisite acoustics and backstage amenities. 

Not everyone loved the local food and sightseeing, but many of us ventured out, particularly for a memorable trip to the Great Wall with several donors who joined us for the last three cities of the tour – Tianjin, Beijing, and Shanghai. Governor General David Johnston, John Baird, and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson joined the orchestra for the last concert.

Educational outreach played a large role on the tour with events throughout, notably at Xinhai Conservatory in Guangzhou, Beijing Central Conservatory, and in Shanghai. There is abundant talent!

NAC CEO Peter Herndorff, Board Chair Julia Foster, and much of our management accompanied us on the tour. It was invaluable having this demonstration of support. Embedded journalists were also on the trip allowing for unparalleled press coverage.

It was a once in a lifetime experience! 

This article originally appeared in OCSM's newsletter, Una Voce, Vol. 21, No. 2 (November 2013)