Chinese tour diary, part one
Packing for a two week tour is always a difficult thing, generally throwing up the obvious difficult choice between a hair brush and another pair of heels.
On Wednesday 4 July, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales made the journey from the cool, clear climate of Cardiff to the hot, humid and very unfamiliar bustle of Beijing. We arrived in the early afternoon and thankfully had the rest of the day to ourselves.
Some of National Orchestra of Wales at the Great Wall of China
Determined not to waste any chances for sightseeing, a large intrepid band of us made our way to the Great Wall of China (many thanks to orchestra chairman, Ian Fisher, for organising us). Gradually throughout the day, our numbers dwindled and in the evening it was a small group who enjoyed a tea tasting at a local tea room. All highly enjoyable after having been coupled up on a long haul flight for too long!
The following day's programme included Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and so a fairly early night was in order. I love this work, but any string player will tell you, it's not really the sort of piece you want to play while battling crushing jet lag.
After a refreshing night's sleep (and a trip to the hotel spa, and a monstrous breakfast of fruit and pork dumplings - piggy viola), I was feeling at the very least human and quite ready to head off to our first venue.
One notable aspect of our tour so far has been the sheer scale and grandeur of the concert halls. We played first at the Tianjin Grand Theatre, a venue that had not yet been finished when Byron (orchestral manager) went on his recce! The theatre is part of a complex that includes a concert hall, an opera house, a museum, an art gallery and a library. You really wouldn't want to take a wrong turn back stage - I got the sense that you would never find your way back in time for the down beat.
Our first programme was a veritable feast of orchestral highlights - Bernstein's Candide, Fauré's Pavane and Debussy's L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune (with such beautiful solos from guest principal flute, Michael Cox), and the Infernal Dance, Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky's Firebird. Principal horn Tim Thorpe's Mozart Horn Concerto proved very popular with the audience, and Ravel's Bolero caused a great deal of excitement.
Audiences here behave quite differently from European audiences. At home, there is a great deal of hushed silence in the concert hall. In China that is not the case. Although not unruly by any means, there is a gentle buzz of noise throughout the performance.
It's not that people aren't paying attention, their enthusiastic response suggests they certainly do, it's just that they are not bound by the conventions of etiquette that we in Europe so often are. It was very gratifying to play to such a full house, and it was satisfying to enjoy such a warm audience response.