11 days, 50 students, 3 cities, one country: the 2016 Metropolitan Youth Symphony Tour to China has come to an end.
China is a place of startling juxtapositions. Even in Beijing, you can walk down the main street and think yourself in the toniest district of a major European capital, but turn a corner and find yourself in a 3rd world slum.
The 2nd world continues to exist in China as well. ‘2nd World’ is a Cold War term referring to the territories under Soviet dominion, and it doesn’t get used much anymore since it’s thought no longer to exist, but this trip proved to me that it definitely does. We stayed for two nights in Beidaihe, a Communist Party resort town that used to be the summer meeting place of the Soviet and Maoist governments. The street signs and shop windows still display Cyrillic print and Russian families dot the beach.
Surprisingly enough, it was in this tiny “village” of 3 million people where we had our biggest success in terms audience reception as well as cultural exchange. We played at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao to a packed audience of probably 500 college students. They were very eager to hear Western Classical music and to interact with us after the show was over, and their students hastily arranged an impromptu performance by the school’s Chinese traditional orchestra.
What was so totally fascinating about this ensemble was that it was set up like a Western orchestra that just happened to use Chinese instruments (as well as some Western ones like cello, bass, and timpani.) In place of the violin section was a group of 6 erhu players. Bamboo flutes sat exactly where you’d expect to see metal flutes in a classical ensemble. Organ-like brass instruments sat where we would have horns and trumpets. The score was laid out like a symphonic work.
The conductor, Qin Hehai chose to perform for us a piece called “Dreams of Taiwan” or “Imaginings of Taiwan” which, as it was explained to me, is a piece that expresses the hope for reconciliation between the Taiwanese ‘territory’ and the Chinese mainland. I never would have expected such a selection, but I was very glad to hear it.
Final thought: if you go to Beijing and you’re looking for a laid back, non-touristy area to hang out in, head straight to Wudaoying hutong near the Lama Temple subway stop. There’s a bunch of excellent vegetarian restaurants (which cater to the Buddhist monks) and sweet little hipster shops.