OCTOBER 2008: Far East Diary

OCTOBER 2008: Far East Diary
October 10, 2008 leonard slatkin

Oct. 1: An 11-hour flight to get to Shanghai from London. It is mild here, and our hotel is located about a half-mile from the Arts Center. That venue was the host site for a small dinner this evening. So my first meal was not of Chinese food, but French! Walked around a bit and stopped off at a tailor shop, which hand-makes clothes and has them ready in a little over 24 hours. I expect the new tux to last about the same length of time.

The last time I was here, about seven years ago, the city was in the midst of a building boom. This has not changed. There are more skyscrapers here than in most American cities. Shanghai is the most populous of Chinese cities and it is clear that they have prioritized Western style business methods to keep up in the world market place. You do not get a sense that this is still a country with a Communist regime.

Oct. 2: Today is a National Holiday in China. All the museums are jam-packed and I was not going to stand in a line all day to visit one. Instead, one of the orchestra members found a massage salon (no, not that kind!) and said that it was really good. I have been suffering with Plantar Fasciitis, which can be truly painful, so I thought that I might give Chinese foot massage a try. It hurt quite a bit, but did improve things for the rest of the day. I might make this a daily pilgrimage on this trip.

The first concert was at the Shanghai Arts Center, a facility that is only six years old. It’s a very fine hall with excellent acoustics. We played an all-English program with the exception of one encore. For this, we secured an orchestral arrangement of a Chinese folk song. There was an audible gasp from the audience when they realized what it was that we were playing. Maybe we will do this piece at all of our concerts.

Oct.3: Just outside the Arts Center, when we were driving up for the rehearsal, there were a number of people waving tickets. Turns out there is a big business in scalping here. I am not sure how much our concert would fetch in additional revenue, but it is nice to know that members of the audience are apparently willing to pay a bit more to come to a performance.

We played Appalachian Spring and Mahler 1 tonight. I got the impression that the people who came this evening were not the same as last night. At the end of the Mahler, there was a tremendous ovation, with the audience standing and cheering. So we reprised the Chinese encore, as it is the only piece from this country that we had on hand.

Not very many people hang around waiting for autographs, as opposed to Japan, where you can spend almost two hours signing program books, CDs and photos. But there is no question that people take classical music very seriously here. The last time I was in China, eight years ago, cell phones were going off and there was talking while we played. None of that was to be found this time around.

One other sign of the changing times is that I was able to watch the vice-presidential debate on CNN. No censorship, even when there was criticism of China. There is even HBO and Cinemax in the hotel room. With a twelve-hour time difference, it is not hard to calculate what time it is in the States. However, I have been laboring under the delusion that Detroit is ahead of Shanghai. This would explain why I was surprised that my assistant was firing off e-mails to me. I thought it was Saturday and it is Friday at home. Never ask me to explain the international date line. I have no clue.

We leave for Macau in the morning. There is a prediction of a typhoon for that part of the world, arriving on Sunday. So I am not looking forward to this flight.

Oct. 4: This is a travel day. Left the hotel at 10 am and took the plane to Hong Kong, with images of the impending typhoon up on CNN. It did not arrive when we did, so the flight was smooth. And the Shanghai airport is very nice. Same for the arrival port, but then the trouble started.

There was a two-hour layover, while we waited to get the ferry to Macau. Bags are transferred and you have two security checkpoints to get through. You also learn that the currency in Hong Kong is not the same as Shanghai. In fact, no two cities on this trip will have equal currency. You get on a bus to go to the boat. The wind was now starting up, and the ocean was beginning to move a little more swiftly than any of us liked.

When we arrived in port at Macau, I fully expected the bags to be either on a carousel or delivered together. No, it does not work like that. About 400 passengers are herded together and you stand around while two men bring about 20 bags at a time. This process took longer than the whole ferry trip. By the time I got to the hotel 11 hours had passed from the time I left Shanghai.

It is stormy now, very warm and really muggy. Our concert is tomorrow and we have most of the day free, but if the weather continues to be a problem, there will be no sightseeing or other activities here.

Oct. 5: Sure enough, a rather severe storm hit here this afternoon. From my hotel window, the scene looked like one of those reports you see on television, with objects blowing around, umbrellas collapsing and tree branches breaking off rapidly. Now the concern was whether or not the concert would take place.

Things let up just in time. We had a brief sound check at the hall before the performance. The Macau Arts Center is a very nice hall: a bit dry onstage, but quite resonant when you are in the audience. Although I would guess that only about 2/3 of the sold-out house’s ticket holders braved the elements, everyone seemed to enjoy the concert. Mahler 1 made a fine noise and came off even better than the Shanghai performance a couple nights ago.

We asked if it was appropriate to play our Chinese encore here and it seems that this is one of those old folk melodies that everyone knows. No political ramifications. I don’t say anything about the piece, known as the “Yeo Dance” and after an eight-bar introduction, the audience realizes what we are playing and applauds.

This time, however, an American who lives in Macau came backstage and said that the part where there is a bassoon solo should be faster. He plays in the orchestra here, which is only 5 years old. I am not so sure. When I arrived, a CD was given to me. This had a performance of the same work, but played on traditional Chinese instruments. My assumption was that the tempi were correct and I simply tried to duplicate them. Maybe he was simply trying to mess with the bassoonist’s head.

After the concert, the presenter—also a leading tenor here—took some of us to a lovely Macau style restaurant. This is a kind of fusion of Portuguese and Chinese cuisines, in some respects unlike anything else one can get, other than here. But we did not stay too long at the restaurant, as the orchestra has to leave at 6:30 in the morning for the trip to Taipei. I am a bit luckier. One more hour of sleep for me.

Oct. 6: The sun is shining and, of course, we are leaving. It is about an hour-and-a-half flight from Macau to Taipei. On the ride into the city, I am struck by how different this city is from where we have been. The western nature of Shanghai and the glitz of Macau have been replaced by an old world feel to the Taiwan capital.

Traffic is heavy and guess what? It is raining! The storm from yesterday seems to have made its way here. So what already seems a little glum gives the city an added pallor. We turn down a street, and, all of a sudden, it is like being in a more European town. More than likely this has to do with all the fashionable designer boutiques which line the street.

The reason I did not travel with the orchestra had to do with the press conference that I was to give this afternoon. There was not much time between arrival at the hotel and the start of the event, but, somehow, I managed to get to the 4th floor conference room in time.

When I first went to Japan with the St. Louis Symphony, there were always these kinds of things to do in each city. You are escorted to a room with lots of photographers and about a dozen journalists. Prepared remarks are made and then come questions. Most seemed up on matters relating to the orchestra, the program tomorrow, and my trip to conduct the NSO— no, not my former position, but the one I will lead here in January.

There was only one curveball. Originally, we were to have played a concert in the city of Taichung, about an hour and a half away. This disappeared a little over a week ago. The RPO was told it had to do with the promoter losing everything due to the recent financial crisis. But a reporter said that ticket sales had been slow and that was the reason. Here in Taipei, we are sold out. This led to a discussion about music education. As it turned out, there were a couple children at this function, and I asked them about their own musical training. They play the piano, and said that they are looking forward to the concert. Then they gave me some stuffed animals. It was really very sweet.

Hopefully the weather clears up, and I can get out a bit tomorrow before rehearsal.

Oct. 7: Still raining but there were a few clear patches. Walked around and explored the area surrounding my hotel. It really does feel like a step back in time. I expected more people on bicycles, but the vehicle of preference here seems to be the motor scooter.

The concert hall is very unusual, in that the exterior resembles an old shrine. But the interior is quite large and much more similar to a Western venue. We are playing Vaughan Williams’ 6th in Singapore on Friday. The last time we performed the work was at a Prom this past summer, so it really needed to be looked at today.

But the interesting thing was the program tonight. Originally this was an all-orchestral concert, including Appalachian Spring and Mahler 1. When the Taichung concert went away, so did our only soloist. The promoter here decided that he wanted the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. Here is where it gets tricky. If it was just the concerto and symphony, that would be about the right length for the concert. But they wanted us to keep the Copland. Now we were looking at a program that would last two and half hours, not counting encores.

So I made some cuts and got Appalachian Spring down to 11 minutes from the usual 23 or so. The pianist played an encore and we just played a short work by Walton; no Chinese piece this time. The hall is large, but was full. After the Mahler, they erupted both physically and emotionally. I could see people with tears in their eyes. Quite amazing and unexpected.

I return here late this year to conduct the National Orchestra of Taipei in a New Year’s Concert as well as a subscription program following that one. Five hours of interviews tomorrow, so if I don’t get out and about this time, I should be able to look around next year. Maybe it will have stopped raining by then.

Oct. 8: This day did not turn out anything like originally planned. First of all, we were supposed to play in Taichung and that was cancelled just before we left. In its place, a series of interviews was scheduled to promote the upcoming concerts for New Years and January. Yesterday, I learned that these would begin at noon and go for about six hours, including a photo shoot at a bookstore.

With the 12-hour time difference, I stayed in the room and watched the second Presidential debate. It started at 9 in the morning here, and I would have plenty of time to get ready. About 15 minutes before the first event, I got a call from the presenter of last night’s concert. He was upset that these interviews were taking place, as he was the one who had to pay for my room. His contention was that the orchestra I will be conducting should be responsible.

The short version is that in 15 minutes, all the events, including a dinner, were all cancelled!

The irony was that now I had a free day, paid for by the presenter of the first concert. So it was not about the money but what I did with my time.

It stopped raining so I had an opportunity to go out for a bit. Went to the National Palace Museum, an incredible collection that gives one a very good view of the cultural landscape of Taiwan. Then it was back to a Reflexology specialist to have my feet destroyed. Then to one of the night markets, just to look around. I did not find a snake vendor.

Not a lot today, but enough to give me a taste of what is here. I am really looking forward to spending a bit more than a week here starting at the end of the year.

Two days to go. I wonder what will happen when we get to Singapore?

By the way, is it just me or does anyone else find it confusing to read about the economic turmoil on the front page of the paper, only to turn and see four more about high-fashion?

Oct. 9: Most people think that the itinerant life is primarily glamorous. A day like this puts that idea to rest. On paper, it looks like there is nothing to do. But a travel day can be just as tiring, simply because you are bound by the itinerary.

I was picked up a little before noon and driven to the Taipei airport. Of course, it was the gentleman who had to pick up the hotel bill for the recently eliminated “media” day. He was nice enough and gave me a couple boxes of tea.

For a change there was no problem at the airport. The security line moved along quickly. I have to say that Singapore Airlines is outstanding, at least so far. We arrived here a little before 7 pm and the new terminal is lovely, a word I have never used in conjunction with baggage claim before. The trip into town took about 30 minutes and the hotel all of us are staying in is quite modern.

But it was almost eight hours of door-to-door travel, so it could be argued that we wasted an entire day. I did get some studying done during the plane flight, as I have a world premiere to give in Pittsburgh next week.

Singapore appears to be a very cosmopolitan city, with the public very well-dressed, and the streets quite clean. Maybe this has something to do with what is printed on the landing card, which you have to fill out before entering the country. Here is what it says. “WARNING! DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW.” Guess that rules out selling my Motrin stash.

One more day to go.

Oct. 10: The last day of any tour is always an exciting occasion. This is especially true when the hall is good. Here in Singapore, there is a relatively new venue called “The Esplanade.” It is a five-minute walk from our hotel. We had a full rehearsal, as this was the only place where we were performing Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony.

I thought it was an unusual choice. The work is not played all that often, even in London. But the sponsors must have noticed that it was something we had done recently and decided it would be good here. And it turned out, not surprisingly, to be a Singapore premiere.

The hall is outstanding. Rather than the traditional red and gold interior, it is done in various shades of green, giving a kind of tranquil feel to the room. Nice resonance, and we could play both soft and loud without any distortion. The hall was about 2/3 full, but with the unusual program, this was not unexpected.

But think about it. On this trip, with just five concerts, we played two all-English programs. What if an American orchestra proposed something that reflected nothing but the music of the United States? I did it a couple times with both St. Louis and Washington, but had to fight very hard to sell the idea. I truly believe that it is important for orchestras and artists to play music from their country of origin. Not because they will do it better than anyone else, but simply as a reflection of their homeland. But it is also important to present a wide variety of repertoire as well. So Mahler, Copland and Bernstein stood comfortably alongside Elgar, Britten, Vaughan Williams and Walton during this trip.

The orchestra was given a send-off party at the hall. In fact, they stayed until midnight, when they got on a bus, and headed for the airport and the flight home. I leave in the morning, with a 19-hour flight ahead of me. It has been a fascinating trip, one that left me with a desire to revisit these cities, perhaps as a tourist.

One last image. Right after the concert, I had to sign autographs for about 200 people who were waiting in line. There were a lot of children, who had been brought by their parents to the performance. I always ask for a first name so I can put it on the program or CD. A boy from Singapore, who could not have been older than 7, came up. When I asked his name, it was difficult to understand what he said. His mother then said, “Elvis.” Has the world gotten small or what?