U. orchestra greeted ‘like rock stars’ during tour in China

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Brown University Orchestra toured China over winter break, playing eight concerts throughout the country, in cities including Beijing and Shanghai. The 11-day, six-city tour was highly unusual for an American university orchestra and a memorable first for the Brown ensemble.

The tour kicked off Dec. 26 with a concert in Dalian – a city in northeast China – followed by two performances in Shanghai at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, a brand-new facility and one of China’s premier concert venues. The orchestra also performed in Ningbo, Suzhou and Changzhou, where fireworks accompanied the Brown musicians’ New Year’s Eve concert. After several days of travel and sightseeing, the tour concluded Jan. 5 with a concert at Beijing’s Poly Plaza International Theater, another renowned performance space.

Brown’s orchestra is only the second American college orchestra to tour China, according to a University press release. A group from Oberlin College did a similar tour last year, but the Brown orchestra is the first unaffiliated with a conservatory or music school to make such a trip.

In recent years, the orchestra’s only international foray had been a 2002 bus trip to Montreal. “This sort of blew that out of the water,” said Jonathan Schwartz ’07, a violinist and the orchestra’s tour manager. “This tour puts us on the map as one of the best non-conservatory college orchestras in the U.S. In that sense, it was pretty impressive.”

For the 71 musicians who made the trip, it was a unique experience. “We got to feel like a professional orchestra,” Schwartz said. “All of our concerts were amazing in the sense that not only were we playing halfway around the world to an audience that didn’t speak our language, but at every concert the audience pretty much loved us.”

Paul Phillips, the orchestra’s conductor and a senior lecturer in music, said the orchestra enjoyed a positive response from the Chinese audiences, receiving standing ovations “in almost every location” and playing three or four encores every night. A typical audience for the concerts was around 800 or 900 spectators, Schwartz said.

“All the concerts went really well,” said Lisa Arias ’07, a violinist and the orchestra’s president. “It was amazing to be in a completely different country and still be received like that.”

The tour came only months after President Ruth Simmons set internationalization at the top of the administration’s agenda. No country is more important to that effort than China, an emerging world power that President Ruth Simmons has visited twice in the past year.

Although the timing of the trip was coincidental – planning began before the administration had announced its focus on internationalization – Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said she believes the trip was well-timed.

“There was a kind of harmonic convergence that bodes well for the development of new relations,” Bergeron said. “What better way to bolster an internationalization effort?”

Consideration of such a trip began last spring when Phillips was invited by a performance company in China to spend a week there researching the possibility of bringing Brown musicians on tour. The expense and difficulty prohibited immediate action, and it initially seemed that a tour would not happen in the near future.

In August, another company, the Dalian Yilong Performance Company, offered to pay the orchestra’s expenses for accommodation, dining and travel within China.

The expense to the orchestra totaled “a little under $200,000,” Phillips said. The majority of that expense came from airfare arrangement to China for 71 students, Phillips, his wife Kathryne Jennings, a vocalist and a teaching associate in music who performed with the orchestra and other support staff.

Student members of the orchestra were asked to pay $1,400 each, slightly less than the cost of a plane ticket. The remaining cost – which included money for visas, support staff, instrument rental, bus transport to and from the airport in Providence and other expenses – was covered by donations and four benefit concerts the orchestra played this fall. The Office of the President also provided $20,000, Arias said.

The cost to the orchestra, according to Phillips, was “less than half of what a youth orchestra usually pays to go on a trip like that.”

The offer from Dalian Yilong left Phillips and the student organizers with only five months to coordinate the logistics of sending a symphony orchestra halfway around the world. “It made last semester very, very crazy,” Arias said. “But it paid off.”

The tour provided many memorable experiences for orchestra members. Despite the tiring concert schedule – they played seven concerts in five different cities in the first seven days of the trip – the orchestra still had time to sightsee, visiting the Great Wall of China, Beijing’s Forbidden City and other famous landmarks.

The concerts were also memorable, orchestra members said. Several mentioned the New Year’s Eve concert in Changzhou as particularly enjoyable for its festive atmosphere, autograph-seeking spectators and fireworks that exploded on stage as the orchestra wrapped up its last note.

Amos Lichtman ’10, a cellist who made the trip, said he felt like a rock star. “We played in a rather large gym that was pretty filled,” Lichtman said. “It was really carnival-like and very different from the rest of the concerts we played.”

“Every piece we played we felt like we were movie stars,” Schwartz said. “After the concert people would ask for autographs and pictures. That’s something we weren’t used to playing in Sayles for a Brown audience.”

For Phillips, the concert in Beijing provided one of the tour’s most significant moments. Officials from China’s Ministry of Culture attended the concert, and when the orchestra performed “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Phillips encouraged the audience to clap along, and according to Phillips, the ministers joined in.

The orchestra’s program for the concerts included traditional classical pieces, movie themes and other mainstream popular tunes and some traditional Chinese music. Western orchestral music has recently gained popularity in China, orchestra members say, and the time around New Year’s is especially popular for attending concerts.

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