Over the Christmas holidays I was privileged to perform with the Philadelphia Festival Orchestra on its first tour abroad and my first time playing with them.
It was the best orchestra I ever performed with as well as one of the greatest French horn sections I have ever experienced. I have worked with our conductor, Jed Gaylin, before as a member of the Bay Atlantic Symphony. He was his usual energetic and precise self and provided us with inspiring leadership not just musically but spiritually as we endured a grueling schedule with ten concerts in twelve days with long travel on planes, trains, and buses.
Every concert was excellent, even those at the end of the tour when half the orchestra members were suffering from flus and sore throats.
We experienced many enthusiastic sold out crowds that wanted two or three encores each time. There were also many children in the audiences that displayed exemplary behavior (not sure we would have experienced that here in the USA.)
The condition of the venues we played in varied from Carnegie Hall-like to dusty and cold or poor acoustics. Most were high quality. The tour provided the string bassists, harpist, and percussion section with instruments from the hall or local orchestras. This provided quite an adventure for these musicians, especially our harpist. The cellists were also provided instruments when we arrived in Shanghai that they were responsible for lugging around for use on the whole tour.
Kudos to these musicians for performing on such a high level on instruments they were unfamiliar with. We only had one rehearsal the day of our first concert and I could tell immediately that this was a special orchestra and it would be a joy to perform with them. There were some complications that first rehearsal like no conductor podium and not the right chair for the harpist and some music scores missing for the timpanist and a freezing, cold hall as well as not enough time for dinner. Our piccolo player had a nasty fall in an unlighted hallway. But by concert time all was sorted out and the concert went well, even though we all had jet lag having arrived the day before.
This was on Christmas Day and to my surprise, China does celebrate the holiday (at least the commercial part of it) and there were many cute children with Santa hats in the audience.
They were an appreciative group as we presented a New Year's Eve type program with Strauss Waltzes, "Sleigh Ride", "Star Wars Medley" (ironically Carrie Fisher passed away while we were on tour), "Oklahoma Medley", three popular Chinese works including "I Love You, China" which was sung beautifully in Chinese by our guest soprano from Poland, Maria Antkowiak. Maria also performed "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's "La Boheme." The moment she began singing in the rehearsal we all had our breaths taken away by the power of her pure, lyrical voice and we knew this would be a great two weeks musically. "I Love You, China" was very well received with the audiences often erupting into applause in the middle of the piece. I believe the work has a similar impact on the Chinese people as "God Bless America" has in the USA.
Congratulations also go out to Ping Liang, our principal bassoonist who contracted the orchestra and managed the tour. There were a dozen or so Chinese Americans in the orchestra that stepped up and translated for us as well as helped coordinate our travels. It was a total group effort. I also am grateful to Mr. Chen and others from China that arranged the trip.
All of our hotel accommodations were first class and we were treated very well by the staffs and those hosting us at each concert. We felt like celebrities and I personally was heartened to see how the arts are respected and appreciated there. Often, Chinese women dressed in brightly colored, gorgeous long dresses would host the events.
The food was great and organic. My stomach was happy. All was paid for including our hotels and plane and train tickets.
My main regret is that our schedule did not allow for much sight seeing. I took many pictures from our bus including the Yellow River and a huge statue of Genghis Khan on the top of a mountain. The weather varied as we traveled far north to Wuhai and Harbin where we saw ice sculptures and snow and to the south to Nanning near Viet Nam where there were palm trees.
Before our last concert a woman and her husband came up to me and our bass trombonist as we were sitting outside near the entrance and asked me in English if she could get a picture with us. We obliged and I got one too. A little later an adorable young girl wearing a Snow White costume walked by with her father. I asked her if I could take her picture and it is a favorite when I share the photos on my cell.
One of the negatives was the smog we experienced everywhere we went. I believe that contributed to many of us getting sore throats. Most of us ended up wearing face masks a lot. It makes me glad that President Obama got China to sign a climate change pact and that the Chinese government has a 10 year plan to deal with it. It also makes me sad and worried that our current president has promised to end climate regulations and shut down the EPA. Could this smog happen here in a decade if we do this? It seems we are going in the wrong direction.
But overall, it was a very successful trip and a great musical adventure. I made a lot of new musician friends and was grateful that we were such a patient, inspiring, and cooperative group of people (reflecting our conductor's positive attitude) and we all made it a meaningful, uplifting experience.
The forty seven member orchestra itself is made up of a very diverse group of young and middle aged, women and men, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Brazilian, and Russian from Philadelphia as well as NYC and New Jersey. We served as a good cross section of the world as music is the international language. I regret there were no African Americans but I know this was not intentional however I found it strange that I saw not one black person in China.
Overall, I see us as ambassadors for America and we represented our country very well. I was proud to have been a part of this inspiring and excellent adventure and hope the goodwill displayed on our tour will not be dampened in the future by our present leader's constant criticism of China. This experience made me feel we are all one people in this world and we have so much in common and we need to put our differences aside and work for peace and the health of our planet. I can honestly say "I love you, China."
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