China is an interesting place – at once mysterious and frankly transparent, complex and profoundly simple. These polarities make spending time in China a challenging task, and a richly rewarding one.
On my most recent trip to China, the now-familiar trek was compounded by added element of intrigue: this time, I would be accompanying an eighty-member orchestra of American students on a whirlwind concert tour across the country. The Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music Orchestra would be touring China under the direction of its renowned conductor, Robin Fountain.
This trip, to me, was the chance of a lifetime. Despite having traveled to China five times prior to this trip, I was ecstatic at the prospect of accompanying an orchestra. Most of my previous trips were solo and small group projects, including several one-on-one collaborations with local musicians. But this time, I would be part of a group of first-timers whose musical performances were being advertised across China the way the New York Philharmonic would be advertised here in the US. It promised to be a very exciting trip indeed.
But ‘exciting’ became an understatement very quickly upon our arrival. The trip was a whirlwind; a bedazzling, sleep-deprived, sub-zero-degrees adventure. It felt, to many of us, nothing short of miraculous that the lot of us managed to haul ourselves and our instruments through six different cities, including 60-second transfers on high-speed trains and sleepless nights in all-too-inviting hotel rooms, and perform a challenging repertoire night after night for sold-out crowds without a serious hitch.
Now, there were plenty of moments of distress. Realizing in the first concert hall that adequate heating could not be expected and adjusting on-the-spot to be able to play an instrument that requires dextrous finger movements is, as you can imagine, not an easy adjustment to make. Standing at a railway station – some of us with cellos on our backs, others carrying large crates of heavy percussion instruments – and hearing that we would have sixty seconds to board a train that would not wait for a late boarder was, to put it mildly, unnerving.
But despite the hindrances and hiccups that are to be expected of any trip abroad, the musicians were sensational and the trip was more successful than I could have imagined. Thousands of Chinese people flooded every concert hall, and many of them were eager to speak to the American musicians after the concerts. The Americans in our group felt like an internationally renowned professional orchestra. And rightly so; they acted both on and off stage as musical ambassadors, seeking new experiences and absorbing them readily.
The societal, cultural, and political dimensions of this trip were fascinating. Teaching a group of musicians how to barter at a local Chinese market and hearing of their interactions with the shopkeepers; ordering food in small groups on free days exploring new cities and discussing the rituals around food and community; translating between our Chinese liaisons and American tour members everything from travel logistics to get-to-know-you games … These are the features of the trip that have the deepest impact.
The premise of this trip was to send an orchestra to China to perform in multiple cities for Chinese audiences. It sounds simple, but we all saw first-hand that it’s a feat to pull off successfully. Yet despite nearly ten days of sleep-deprived nights and literal freezing temperatures, the orchestra wasn’t discussing the obstacles as they prepared to return home. They were sharing stories of their adventures, of the sights they saw, of the thoughts they were thinking after being able to see China in a new context.
As the age-old adage goes, ‘music is an international language.’ If anything, this trip illustrates that statement tenfold. Sure, we translators did our part to ensure that essential messages were conveyed. But the musicians did the much more important part when it comes to conveying messages. What messages were these? We’ll explore this more soon, as I will be surveying and speaking with students who traveled to China on this trip to see what they garnered from the experience.
In the meantime, check out the Vanderbilt Orchestra’s Facebook page chronicling their China trip. Feel free to send us questions you would want to ask the musicians about their trip to China, and stay tuned for the next installment in this China series.