May 12 2009
When the Pittsburgh Symphony planned its first tour with Manfred Honeck in Asia, it wasn’t expecting a worldwide flu pandemic. But in spite of the worries, the orchestra has arrived safely in Beijing. After nearly 24 hours of travel and a 13-and-a-half hour flight from Chicago, the players were scanned with a thermal sensing device and a few hot spots resulted in extra questioning. After more than an hour in the customs clearance checkpoints, the Pittsburgh Symphony was given a clean bill of health. Everyone filled out a health Declaration Form with indelicate questions such as, “Have you had close contact with pig within the past week,” and “Have you had close contact with persons or suspects suffering from influenza?”
The form also asks you to mark the symptoms you observed from a list of check box horribles. All the customs agents are wearing surgical masks and there were a number or travelers with masks even in Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
Pittsburgh is Mister Rogers’ neighborhood. I was glad to be reminded at the C Gate, setting sail at 9:30 on Monday morning from Pittsburgh International, where King Friday the 13th’s castle still stands proudly with nice flat screen TVs on each side offering Johnny Costa’s gentle jazz piano. On display, you see Fred Rogers’ pink sweater next to King Friday, Daniel Striped Tiger; and Cornflake S. Pecially, who specializes in making things. While washing my hands in preparation for departure, I was happy to hear PPG Classics on the Move sweetly serenading everyone with music played by Chatham Baroque.
We had an hour in Chicago, where I noticed violinist Dennis O’Boyle with a giant hardbound tome, The Cambridge Ancient History, and a volume of word puzzles only a Sudoku fan would love, a game called KenKen. On board, Dennis told me he did skip lightly through a few chapters on the Chinese Iron Age to spend time with the puzzles. We enjoyed looking out the window of the Boeing 777 kitchen to see the frozen lakes of Siberia. The pilot followed a route North from Chicago over Minnesota, Thunder Bay, Baffin Bay, near the North Pole, Siberia and on into China. The United flight crew posted the unhappy result of the Penguins-Capitals playoff on the side of the kitchen cabinets. They seemed very relaxed about the musicians hanging out in the galley.
Bass Trombonist Murray Crewe won praise from the stewardess for his yellow “Bass Trombone Rawks” T-shirt, which he said was a gift from his daughter, found in Halifax. His reading was Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. The author spent a calendar year learning the 524 recipes of Julia Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I understand a movie is forthcoming. Also in the 777 kitchen were two runners from Vermont on their way to the Beijing marathon this weekend, which partly follows the Great Wall.
I sat next to percussionist Michael Pape, who plays regularly in the Fort Wayne, Indiana Philharmonic and has been added to the tour and three Heinz Hall concerts this season by virtue of his fine work at Carnegie Mellon and as a student of PSO Principal Tympanist Timothy Adams. Michael is a Bethel Park native. He told me he was enjoying a classic Herbie Hancock release from 1974, Thrust, on his iPod. Thrust is the sequel to the Headhunters album which is heard each week on WQED tv as the theme for Black Horizons.
The 14 hour journey was helped along by Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and Frost/Nixon among the movie selection, and a mid-flight bowl of noodles with almond cookie.
The pilot said he had optimum landing conditions in Beijing with clear sky and not a trace of the smog that worried the planners of last year’s Olympics. The airport with its ultramodern light and airy design is a revelation for the Pittsburgh Symphony members who remember the trip 22 years ago to a dim arrival hall with nervous Red Guards keeping watch.
They also remember the hotel with mouse traps in the rooms. I remember the Lorin Maazel tour to Beijing because violinist Linda Fischer didn’t realize the bag mistakenly delivered to her room belonged to me. It stayed in China until US Steel’s miracle worker Robert Littlefield negotiated the return of my penny loafers and the reel-to-reel tape of the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the famous Chinese Chorus sung in Mandarin at the enormous Beijing Sports Palace. That was six months later. I remember coming out into the late evening with hundreds of bicycles whizzing around and dinging their warning bells.
On the way into Beijing today we saw a busy bicycle lane next to six other lanes of traffic and overhead signs promoting “Harmonious Beijing Traffic Safety” in English and Chinese. The transformation of the city is amazing, with gleaming office towers all around the Symphony’s hotel just a few steps away from a Ritz-Carlton. The office buildings are festooned with huge colorful red Chinese characters illuminated at the top.
I spoke in the lobby of the hotel with Thomas Thompson, who was enjoying a hamburger and fries. Chris Thompson told me, “We had a pupu platter at Sesame Inn in Mt Lebanon Sunday night before we left. Highly recommended!” Principal E-flat clarinet Thompson joined in 1966 and was on the first Asian tour with William Steinberg, which included a televised concert in Tokyo over the national network NHK.
Also scoping out the neighborhood was WQED-FM Musical Kid Heidi Gorton and her parents, Principal Harpist Gretchen van Hoesen and Co-Principal Oboist James Gorton, with Assistant Principal Bassist Betsy Heston. Heidi is playing harp on the tour, having toured China at age one back in 1987 when she was fed on the Great Wall by Thomas Thompson. Heidi just graduated from Juilliard on Monday morning at 7:00 am as she completed her last test online.
CCTV1, the national network of China, devoted the entire evening to solemn ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake which killed 75,000. Flowers were placed at the memorial to the dead. Tomorrow, many in the Pittsburgh Symphony will take their first trip to the Great Wall before Thursday’s first rehearsal and concert here in Beijing.