Today, our last day of concerting, began with a morning trip to the Gansu Provincial Museum, home to a permanent exhibition about the Silk Road (on which Langzhou was a key stop). A particular highlight for us was the opportunity to see the Flying horse of Gansu, the national symbol of China’s tourism industry.
Afterwards, en route to lunch, we were told by our much-adored tour guide Glenn that the organisers of the festival had sent a film crew and wanted us to perform a short piece for them. This resulted in an impromptu rendition of Danny Boy (replete with pdf scores on our phones) on the banks of the Yellow River, just one of the many wonderfully odd memories that we’ll take home from this trip.
After a (much-needed) restful afternoon off we headed to the Lanzhou concert hall to rehearse for our concert in the Yellow River Chorus Festival that evening.
The hall was packed to the rafters come concert time and we gave not one, but two encores, the first of which was a joint rendition of Josef Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’ with the Northwest Minzu University Choir. We ended the concert, and our music-making in China, with a performance of the Chinese folk song ‘Fengyang song’, a consistent crowd favourite throughout the tour.
Tomorrow (very early!) we would head home to Beijing before catching our flight hope – it’s hard to believe how quickly the end of our tour has come!
Today marked the opening ceremony of the Yellow River Chorus Festival in Lanzhou and, as we had done in Beijing, we were taking part in the opening of the festival. 10 members of the choir headed out bright and early (leaving at around 8am) to go to the Gansu theatre to rehearse the joint number, while the rest of us had the morning to ourselves.
I chose to get up for breakfast – a rather unusual breakfast by out standards as the Chinese don’t really eat ‘breakfast foods’ as such – and then head out to explore the city. We walked through the park and across the bridge to get to the theatre, stopping to take pictures around the lake (and have pictures taken of us!) and listen to a group of elderly people singing – they were so delighted that we were stood listening to them.
We met the others for lunch opposite the rehearsal and then waiting around before having our own rehearsal in the afternoon. There was a fair amount of waiting around so we took any opportunity we could to explore outside, including finding more beer (it really it very cheap over there!)
In the evening, we took part in the opening ceremony, with ten members of the choir heading on stage to take part in the joint number – which ended up being Michael Jackson’s ‘We Are the World’. We later sang a number of our own before heading home to the hotel for the night.
I’m afraid we don’t have much to report today as we spent the day travelling from Beijing to Lanzhou, which was a 2 and a half hour flight.
Our first impression of Lanzhou was very different to that of Beijing. The air was clear and we could see for miles – a real treat as we flew in past the mountainous region of what used to be Tibet. It was hot – 35 degrees – but not sticky as it had been and the city skyline against the mountains reminded me of somewhere like Vancouver. Not what we expected from somewhere we had all considered to be fairly ‘remote’!
We drove an hour to the hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the Vienna International Hotel. The view from the hotel room was the best I have ever seen.
The evening was spent having dinner and relaxing – we were all tired and had a long day of rehearsals the following day.
Today, instead of performing concerts, we were a demonstration choir for two masterclasses, directed by Steven. Both took place in Beijing no.35 Middle School to large audiences filled predominantly with choral directors, but also singers.
The aim of the masterclasses was to teach choral conductors from all across China some of the tricks of the trade and develop conducting techniques to get the best out of a choir. In the morning, this workshop was led by Steven for most of the time, in a lecture theatre, while the choir went out to find some coffee. We then came back and took part in a brief demonstration as part of the talk, singing through some of the music we were performing in concert to demonstrated some of what Steven had presented to the group.
Following a quick lunch at the school, we were back into another workshop, this time in what seemed to be the school’s concert hall. It was quite a surreal experience as the hall was more or less full and the vast majority of people had their phones out filming the whole thing (it was very Black Mirror-esque) – we all felt very ‘on show’ as it were! Similarly to the morning session, Steven led most of the talk and we came on to perform towards the end. The crowd were greatly appreciative and it was interesting to see the differences in choral culture between the UK and China.
Once we’d say our goodbyes, we headed back towards the hotel and asked if we’d be able to visit a flea market nearby. He willingly obliged, warning us about the significant overpricing that the market vendors would try on some seemingly naïve tourists! For example, if something had an asking price of 400 yuan, we could probably get away with asking for it for 50 yuan – useful information given the high prices we were met with! There was a lot on offer, from crockery and trinkets to jade and fabric stalls. Some people managed to snap up a bargain, but most people just took in the experience. That evening was our last together in Beijing before we headed to Lanzhou the next day, so we enjoyed some relaxed social time post dinner before preparing to leave.
Sweat in China is different from any other sweat on earth. Confronted with the idea of 34 – 37 degree heat, before stepping outside you anticipate a bit of moisture and the accompanying feeling of discomfort. What you do not realise is that stepping outside in Chinese July is like stepping into an oven, then (paradoxically) swimming through the oven’s insides as you attempt to walk through a haze of humidity. Moistness is not just on your skin: it’s it’s all around you, most easily compared to spending your whole day in a sauna. Day 5 was Day Of The Sweat, and boy, did we know it.
Day 5, it should be mentioned, was also the Great Wall Of China day (the coalescence of these two days – of sweat and of wall – was no coincidence). While we were all pleasantly surprised that, an hour outside of Beijing the air was clearer and breezy, this relief did not last long. The Great Wall is not your average wall. It’s really very steep. The steps are uneven – treacherous, in fact. Some are over a foot deep and make your calves wobble with effort and your quads ache in toil. Despite the breeze, the sweat was ubiquitous. We gasped for air with each step, pushing for the next plateau or viewing point where we could rehydrate and take some pictures (no selfies of course, as we all looked our very worst).
I might add here that some of our number were slightly on the hungover side of things, having enjoyed ourselves after our concert the previous evening. For these silly few the calf wobbles and sweat drips were combined with other feelings of slight regret. Reader, I was one of them. And it’s a credit to the majesty of the thing that, through humidity and hangovers, we all found the place utterly marvellous. To have walked on such an old piece of humanity’s history, to have soaked up the greenness of the mountains and the bluey-greyness of the sky, was a joy, and a real highlight of the trip so far. Pictures might do this describing job better than me, so here are a few –
The Wall visit was followed by a visit to the Ming Tombs, then a rest at the hotel before a concert, shared with the Israeli choir mentioned in the Day 3 blog. I’ll leave out an analysis of the concert, as I’m an alto and we managed to make a mistake on our first note of the show (A natural, an unexpected nemesis). But the rest went without hitch and was great fun – the crowd loved it. We had pictures with the Israeli choir, and ate pizza for dinner – a real treat after our rice overdose of the preceding days. Credit must go to our tour guide, Glenn, for organising this, and for diligently photographing the concert for us!
Today was our first day of proper sightseeing around Beijing. After an early breakfast we headed to Tiananmen Square, the largest city centre plaza in the world, and host to many key political events in the city. Passing under a one tonne portrait of Chairman Mao we entered the beautiful Forbidden City. Cue many group photo opportunities, sometimes featuring enthusiastic locals. The temperature was the highest we’d yet had, so after walking outside for the best part of two hours, we were extremely grateful to visit a small museum within the city not just for the ancient artefacts but also air conditioning. The architecture of the Forbidden City is entirely different to everything we had seen until now in modern Beijing, and we were very grateful to have the chance to explore such important parts of the city and learn more about China’s history, while on a choir tour.
After a quick stop to fill our water bottles (and try pea flavoured ice cream!), we walked to Beihai Park, a lakeside oasis behind the Forbidden City. The park is centred around a hill, scattered with Buddhist temples that lead to the White Pagoda. Despite the heat, the clear air meant our climb was rewarded with some of the best views we’d seen so far.
To round off a packed morning we had a delicious Chinese meal, and returned to the hotel to cool down before our solo concert at the Beijing Concert Hall, the most prestigious concert venue in Beijing. Although the concert hall is huge, the acoustic is incredibly receptive and and picks up every sound, which allowed us to give a more expressive performance than at previous venues. Our programme, in particular two arrangements of Chinese folk songs, were greeted very warmly by the audience, who invited us for an encore performance of the second folk song, The Flowing Stream, and even accompanied us with clapping. To be thanked with this energy by such a grateful audience was highly moving for us.
We were all buzzing from the atmosphere and returned to the hotel to celebrate over a few beers. It was one of those days that upon evening reflection, you are rather impressed by the amount achieved during it. All told, we had a top day in Beijing.
This morning we had the unusual experience of finishing breakfast at 10:00 and leaving the hotel for lunch at 10:30. In an impressive feat of digestion, many of us had managed to have two meals by midday: personally it was sausage and eggs followed by rice and watermelon.
Spirits were thus mixed as we arrived at the Minzu Theatre for our afternoon gig (a ten-minute set of Vaughan Williams Shakespeare Songs in amongst some other choirs’ performances). Some, who will remain unnamed, had to rush immediately to the toilet, too full of cereal and sweet’n’sour bok choi to use their diaphragms for singing. We have collectively discovered that Day 3 is the bunged-up stage of rice consumption.
After the toilet trips, it was time to rehearse. We had a sing-through in our dressing room, then quickly filed onto stage before we were booted off and replaced by a group of 50 Chinese children in red and gold outfits. The range of choirs in this afternoon’s cultural exchange concert was large, and included an Israeli choir singing in Hebrew, and a very sweet Chinese mother and child group dressed in pink doing balletic dance moves. A crowd favourite was the Guangzhou Children’s Radio and TV Choir, who did a jazzy piece complete with kazoo, and claps reminiscent of the Icelandic football team’s thunderclap. They asked for photos with us after the performance and we all ended up singing a Chinese folk song together. A clear triumph for the unifying power of singing, wahey!
After the concert we drove to the Birds Nest stadium and Water Cube, of Olympics 2008 fame. The bus thermometer informed us that it would be 37 degrees, but armed with some fans (kindly gifted to us by our tour guide, Glenn), we walked through the Olympic Park, taking lots of group photos as we went – see below for evidence! We were also stopped by lots of Chinese tourists who wanted photos with us!
It was then back to the hotel for dinner and a further quick rehearsal ahead of our headline concert tomorrow night at the Beijing Concert Hall. Early nights beckoned to all ahead of tomorrow’s big gig, and we didn’t even drink any beer. Our stomachs and digestive systems had probably been battered enough for one day.