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ONLINE ONLY: Tuning Up in China

Stanford musical groups tour on the eve of Beijing Olympics.

Toni Gauthier

Stanford Taiko sounds off at the Great Wall's Juyongguan Pass, roughly 30 miles outside Beijing.

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By Sheila Melvin

In the course of a three-week tour early this summer, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Stanford Chamber Chorale, Stanford Choral Union, Stanford Taiko and the St. Lawrence String Quartet gave 13 performances in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi'an and Beijing. Here's a report on a concert in which more than 600 musicians performed.

The Great Hall of the People, standing on the west side of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, is the political and symbolic center of the People's Republic of China. Built as a site for major governmental gatherings, it can hold up to 10,000 people in one auditorium and seat 5,000 for dinner. Mao Zedong once preached from its massive stage, and China's current leaders gather there each March for the National People's Congress.

But on July 2 the Great Hall played host to a cultural event of a decidedly nonpolitical nature: a concert featuring the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Stanford Chamber Chorale, Stanford Taiko and Stanford Choral Union, together with orchestras and choristers from Peking University, Tsinghua University and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, the Silicon Valley Ai-Yue Chorus and the National Taiwan University Alumni Chorus.

Bringing so many people from different institutions and continents together for a single concert was no easy task. Just getting everyone into the Great Hall was a major undertaking because its security is so tight. A list of every instrument and piece of equipment to be used for the concert had to be submitted in advance; a thing not on the list couldn't be brought in. Performers also were supposed to undergo the pre-performance “political inspection” that is standard for any Chinese performers. However, because this was impractical for an American group, a list of names and passport numbers was accepted instead.

On the day of the concert, the 600 student-musicians and other performers had to arrive by 9 a.m., have their bags searched, and pass through metal detectors. Once inside, they were not allowed to leave until the concert was over that night. Hot meals in Styrofoam boxes were provided by Great Hall catering services and eaten in a basement corridor; during their free time, performers were able to lounge in the auditorium in which Chinese leaders meet, sitting at their assembly room desks (which have small cubbyholes for papers and teacups) or gazing up at the red five-pronged star lamp that adorns the ceiling. This made for a long and exhausting day, but one that no one involved will soon forget. Nor will the participants likely repeat this at home—because how often does the U.S. Congress invite an international assembly of student orchestras to play in its chambers?

The performance was memorable, too, for the nearly 6,000 people in the audience, among them Helen Bing, who with her husband, Peter Bing, '55, supported the tour; Assistant Vice President for the Arts Karen Nagy; Dean of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller; and Chinese officials from the ministries of culture and education, and participating universities. VIPs aside, most audience members were young adults, many of them university students.

The concert opened with the stunning official world premiere of Cosmic Flames by Zhou Long. Performed by orchestra, chorus and Taiko drummers, it had been commissioned for this occasion in the Great Hall. The concert also included Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, performed by pianist Jon Nakamatsu, '91, MA '92; Chen Gang and He Zhanhao's Butterfly Lovers; and the final Ode to Joy movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Applause for the performances was warm, but not gushing; China is a society in which criticism is more easily forthcoming than praise, and its audiences are decidedly cooler than those in America.

Memorable as it was, the Great Hall performance was only one of 12 concerts given by the various Stanford ensembles—including the St. Lawrence String Quartet—in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi'an and Beijing, most of them collaborations with local universities. Stanford conductors Jindong Cai and Stephen Sano, MA '91, DMA '94, spent a full year planning the three-week “Musical Journey to the Olympics,” and their efforts, which were strongly supported by the President's Office, paid off. All shows were well attended, warmly received and given considerable media coverage; the Great Hall performance has since been broadcast nationwide by China Central Television.

The tour ended with Stanford Taiko, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the symphony and the chorus performing at the same time in three different venues across Beijing—a clean sweep for Stanford and its salute to cultural exchange in this Olympic year.


SHEILA MELVIN is co-author, with associate professor of music Jindong Cai, her husband, of Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese.

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