A Musical Tour of China

Kim Cook
May 01, 1999

Last May, conductor Pu Qi Jiang and the Castalia Trio (Maryl`ene Dosse, pianist; James Lyon, violinist; and Kim Cook, cellist) presented a series of five concerts and 15 master classes in Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, and Shanghai. Their program included the Triple Concerto by Beethoven, orchestral works by Tchaikovsky and Copland, trios by Brahms and Ravel, and a trio composed for this tour by Penn State professor Bruce Trinkley.

clothes in China

We had been cautioned that audiences in China might be reserved, and not overly demonstrative in their appreciation of our concerts. This was not our experience.

Our first performance, a recital at the Beijing Conservatory, drew more than 400 people. Our concert in Nanjing was sold out, and tickets for standing room were given only to professional musicians. In all, we performed for more than 4,000 people. We were impressed not only by the size of the crowds, but by the youthfulness and enthusiasm of the audience, which included many young children. Their response was overwhelming. We signed hundreds of autographs, students requested lessons, and the public showered us with gifts, flowers, and hugs. We received extensive media coverage, including three national television broadcasts and numerous newspaper articles and reviews. "Their performance captured our hearts," said the Daily Xinhua in Nanjing. "They awakened our senses," said the Nanjing Daily Journal.

Our tour was the result of three years of persistent work by conductor Pu Qi Jiang to secure the necessary invitations, visas, and documents. It was sponsored (and partly funded) by the Jiangsu Opera and Dance Theater in Nanjing, the Shandong Provincial Performing Company in Jinan, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In each of these cities we held a residency, working with students and professional musicians in addition to giving concerts. (We also enjoyed sightseeing visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and the Summer Palace in Beijing. We were entertained at a 16-course banquet, where we learned how to make an appropriate toast at dinner and were encouraged to sample such delicacies as fried scorpion. We got a little carried away shopping for silk, amazed by the beauty and quality of the fabrics, and we visited a cloisonnÈ factory, where we watched the painstaking process of placing metal strips in designs and inlaying enamel on the surface of a plate.)

In one master class, for instance, violinist Jim Lyon played the second violin part with a quartet at the Beijing Conservatory. He encouraged the musicians to communicate better with each other. In chamber music, he explained, we all have roles as leader and as follower: It is important for each player to take some responsibility for leading, since the interaction of the parts makes the whole. I worked with the cellist in the quartet to help him create a stronger tonal foundation, which is part of the role of the bass instrument in the group. By providing a focused fundamental tone, the cello allows the higher instruments to ring within the overtones, creating more resonance and a wider range of color. Maryl`ene, working with a pianist, asked the student to play with a feeling of freedom and to consider more seriously the emotional, human aspect of the music. Pu Qi, working with conductors and orchestral musicians, concentrated a great deal on the articulation of the sound, or how the tone begins and ends on each note that is played. Articulation is crucial to the rhythmic vitality in orchestral music. (Pu Qi also had the fulltime duty of translating the classes we gave, as well as giving his own lectures.)

Because the students had such a high level of technical facility, they were able to experiment immediately with the ideas we expressed. The teachers also responded enthusiastically. More than once, after a student had played in our class, his or her teacher came and asked to play for us.

The development of chamber music in China is relatively new compared to that of orchestral and solo music. We looked for some trio music by Chinese composers and found nothing. (In Jinan, however, the resident composer of the Shandong Arts College was in our audience. He came back after the performance and said that he was so inspired he was going to begin writing a piano trio immediately.) The quality of the instruments in China still leaves much to be desired, and current musical scores are rare—some musicians are using scores published before World War II. Yet despite the lack of resources, the musicians demonstrate an inspiring level of dedication, and we were impressed with the determination the Chinese seem to have toward building a strong foundation in arts education. Everywhere we visited, there was the buzz of construction (not just in the background, but sometimes right outside the practice rooms).

Performing in China, I was made aware again of the immediacy and intimacy of the arts, and of music in particular. Music allows for immediate communication, without the disturbance of language or the limitations of words. Considering that the Chinese language is made of characters, rather than an alphabet, we can only imagine the ingrained difference in our cultures. And yet the Chinese audiences gave our performances their full attention, eager to absorb the emotional content of the music and the energy of our presentations. They seemed especially touched by the premiere of Bruce Trinkleyís trio, which was based on ancient Chinese poetry. They appreciated the beauty of the piece and acknowledged it as a genuine expression of our desire to extend ourselves in order to find the common ground between our cultures.

Kim Cook, M.Mus., is associate professor in the School of Music, College of Arts and Architecture, 233 Music Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-7984; kdc3@psu.edu. Additional funding for the Castalia Trioís tour was provided by Penn Stateís Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, College of Arts and Architecture, School of Music, and Office of International Programs.

Last Updated May 01, 1999