May 17 2009

From Mao to Mahler

Published by at 9:31 am under PSO 2009 Asian Tour

The Egg

The Egg

The Egg

There are a few westerners in the big hotels in Beijing. At breakfast, I met Linda Heimels, born in Amsterdam. She told me she loves living in Beijing even more than her few years spent in New York and Washington D.C. She told me the Chinese are very warm and open once you gain their confidence, but it takes a while.  She was surprised when she joined the Westin staff because she found the her colleagues often waited for orders more than she was used to in the states, perhaps a holdover from the tight control of the Communist regime.  Though Linda had been taught as a child to learn from her mistakes, she found that making a mistake causes deep regret for the Chinese and a loss of honor.

The Pittsburgh Symphony’s concerts at “The Egg,” Beijing’s National Concert Hall  on Thursday and Friday, were both well received.  I joined the contingent from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance for a reception at the at the Grand Hyatt hosted by Westinghouse China Chief Executive William Poirer and his colleagues Barry Williams, Finance Director; and Gavin Liu, VP of Sales. Bill had invited friends and business partners from the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, my tour sponsor Bayer Corporation, Siemens China Head of Human Resources Sonja Condon, and  American Embassy staff. Liam Condon, the Managing Director of Bayer China, said his office is next door to the sprawling Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV tower. Last February, Chinese New Year fireworks got out of hand and burned its companion 34-story not-quite-finished luxury hotel to a shell. CCTV’s CEO resigned just this week over the scandal. The state television network CCTV operates at least nine of the channels I’ve seen on the hotel TV. I was told that only westerners get to see CNN/ The channel is blocked unless you’re on a VIP list in the rest of the country.

Bayer people in Beijing

Bayer people in Beijing

Bayer people in Beijing

Bayer’s Horst Dieter Hoericke and Liam told me that Bayer has over 4,000 employees in China but they don’t get a chance to see their American colleagues except at corporate gatherings at their world headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany. When I mentioned that Bayer sponsors the Pittsburgh Symphony radio broadcasts and my tour coverage, Liam said, “Culture is in the company’s DNA along with service to the community”.

Carnegie Mellon University graduate and American Embassy Vice Consul Michael Quigley and his wife Tetsuko told me they loved watching Chris Fennimore and listening to QED-FM when they lived in Pittsburgh. Tetsuko even named particular potato favorites they’d acquired from the QED Cooks recipe books!

New Castle native Daniel Piccuta, the Charge d’Affaires of the American Embassy, said he was thrilled to have the Pittsburgh Symphony in town. He has overseen the transition at the Embassy from the Bush to the Obama administrations. Just this week, Utah Governor Jon Hunstman was nominated as US Ambasador to China. Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. Piccuta’s Chinese interest began with his Chinese classes at Pitt. He offered me a ride in his black embassy car with Chinese driver. “You can’t have an American flag on your car and get in a traffic accident in Beijing,” he explained. I had to pass because it was so close to concert time I worried I’d never get backstage. It turned out the weather was rainy and traffic was extra heavy, so some concertgoers missed the opening piece, Rapture, by Christopher Rouse. Piccuta said he was glad that Pittsburgh brought a new piece by an American composer.  Rapture was a riddle for the audience — they didn’t seem too excited about Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, either. The hall was two-thirds full. On tour, you hope to see a full house.

On the second half, Beethoven’s Seventh worked its magic and the Chinese were on their feet calling for two encores — the finale of Haydn’s 88th Symphony, and Morning Mood from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Each got a “standing O.” Both PSO Music Director Manfred Honeck and Concertmaster Andres Cardenes were given huge floral bouquets wrapped in flower-shaped paper.

Ruth Ann Dailey told me she sat next to an Australian who is living in Beijing doing systems integration work for a business merger. He’d been to The Egg for concerts by the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. He said that there were more people at the Pittsburgh concert and that Pittsburgh was received with greater enthusiasm. Neither of the other orchestras got a standing ovation. I noticed that Mariss Jansons brought the Concertgebouw Orchestra to Beijing earlier this year.

Cellist Michael Lipman finds Lang Lang CDs

Cellist Michael Lipman finds Lang Lang CDs

Cellist Michael Lipman finds Lang Lang CDs at the Beijing Central Conservatory

At rehearsal on Friday morning, I met Maria Stephens from Pittsburgh. She’s working in China for the German government in the field of microfinance, helping rural areas develop. She said that the Chinese have no idea how to do publicity for their classical concerts. She’d struggled to get ticket details and had to work hard to find the box office after no luck at buying tickets over the phone. A Beijing friend reported seeing nothing in the papers about the concert. I didn’t see any posters for the concert. I did see banners for the Opera Festival taking place at the Egg’s Opera House. After the concert, as we walked to the buses, we heard O Sole Mio from what seemed like three tenors at the Opera House.

In the afternoon, I took a taxi with cellist Michael Lipman to the Beijing Central Conservatory where pianist Lang Lang began his rise to fame. His posters and recordings are prominently displayed in the CD shop at the conservatory entrance. I picked up some Chinese piano music, a collection of favorites from a Chinese harmonica player and some Chinese jazz. There are over 2,000 students at the Conservatory. Its guest faculty is a virtual Who’s Who of the classical music world with names like Rostropovich and Dutoit among a long list of luminaries. Our Chinese-born Pittsburgh Symphony violinist Hong-Guang Jia is a guest faculty member too, visiting at least once a year. He took a carload of friends to the Central Conservatory, who were impressed to find a photo on the wall of the Pittsburgh virtuoso who seems to have the stateside nickname, “Hongy.”

Yes, it's Jackie Chan

Yes, it's Jackie Chan

Yes, it's Jackie Chan

My seatmate, percussionist Michael Pape, spotted action movie star Jackie Chan at a movie theater. Chan has been working in Sichuan as a volunteer in the massive disaster relief program following last year’s earthquake. There was a wild scene, as if the crowd had spotted Tom Cruise. Michael took a photo and forwarded it to me. Bass trombonist Murray Crewe has promised me his picture of the Terrible Towel being unfurled at the Great Wall.

After the Friday rehearsal, I walked over to the famous Tiananmen Square where Mao’s giant portrait overlooks the entrance to the Forbidden City, the Emperors’ sprawling complex of temples, gardens and residences. Thousands of Chinese tourists swarm through the square, following leaders wearing red caps and bearing pennant style flags. Eventually, each visitor stands in front of Mao’s portrait to have their picture taken. Mao still has his fans. In fact, some say there are new leftists who gather at the Utopia coffee shop to express their admiration for Mao’s ideas. CCTV broadcasts a regular talk show led by Yang Rui who expounds new leftist anti-American views. Just the same, it seems the old ways under Mao could never return after China’s astonishing economic transformation over the past twenty years. Everyone in the Pittsburgh Symphony has commented on the amazing transformation. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls it the “Great Wall of Traffic.” Volkswagens and Audi taxis, trucks and buses clog every road. Just blocks from our hotel were luxury retailers, Dior, Chopard, Versace, Zegna, Cartier you name it.

I strolled around the Great Hall of the People, where the Pittsburgh Symphony played in 1987, memorable for its hole-in-the-floor restrooms. the Chinese commode is still an oddity. At the Great Wall, the restroom sinks have the usual electric eye to start the water when you wash your hands but when you open the stall door you find only a white porcelain trough flat in the floor.

The Mao Memorial tomb usually involves a three-hour wait to see Mao’s body. Principal Bassoon Nancy Goeres made it inside.

The Pittsburgh Symphony rehearsing at China's National Center for the Performing Arts, "The Egg."

The Pittsburgh Symphony rehearsing at China's National Center for the Performing Arts, "The Egg."

The Pittsburgh Symphony rehearsing at China's National Center for the Performing Arts, the "Egg."

Returning to the Egg, I enjoyed the water which flows in a pool all around it. There were hundreds of tourists visiting the Egg and stopping in the shops, bookstore, and restaurants in the broad lobby with a soaring ceiling.

The all-Beethoven Friday concert with Orion Weiss playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Manfred Honeck conducting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was even more successful. It was tough to get you a photo. I was asked not to use my camera even though there were hundreds of concertgoers trying to use their cell phones or cameras and flashes going off. The Chinese are trying to stop photos in the concert hall but it’s a losing battle. They shine red laser pointers at the offending cameras.