Dr. Doug Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at UT, joined us on the tour for a couple of recent stops (Taipei through Shenzhen). Over the course of his time with us, he journaled quite extensively on the activities of the Wind Ensemble, and wrote to share his perspective on the tour as a keen observer and wonderful supporter. We are grateful to Dean Dempster for joining us, and for all of his support in helping to make this tour possible!
I’m guest blogging in honor of the students and faculty who are probably too worn out from the last week of travel and performances to blog much themselves.
And, I want to thank all of them—musicians, faculty members Jerry Junkin and Nathan Williams, guest itinerant composers Frank Ticheli and John Mackey (and his wife Abby), “team” doctor John Morehead (on the faculty at UT Health Science Center) and “team” nurse, Alex from Brazil, and all the graduate student musician wranglers—I want to thank all you for a most exhausting, exhilarating, and unforgettable adventure in music diplomacy. Thanks for letting the dean tag along.
I joined the tour in Taipei for a performance at Soochow University that was jointly sponsored by the university and the China Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture on which I serve as a board member. The Foundation hosted a preconcert banquet that included a most generous welcome by chairman of the board, Dr. Sun Chen, and a brief lesson on the history of the China Foundation. (It was founded by an act of presidents Teddy Roosevelt and later Calvin Coolidge to “remit” for educational purposes financial reparations China was obligated to pay to the European powers after the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. An amazing history. (Google it!) We also were welcomed by the president of Soochow University, Dr. Pan Wei-Ta.
In Soochow, the hall was relatively small (700 seats?), but nearly new with a super lively acoustic. I was sitting several rows back in the orchestra seats and I’m quite sure I felt a breeze coming off the stage during the climatic moments of the raucous third movement of Mackey’s brilliant Wine Dark Sea.
It was the first of four, stunning performances I got to hear by the WE over the week, all of them peaking in a virtuoso solo of Frank Ticheli’s clarinet concerto by professor Nathan Williams. This piece is really a beautiful, sophisticated homage to American classical music and composers Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein. Ticheli, Williams, and the Wind Ensemble under Professor Junkin took listeners through wildly syncopated, exuberant passages as well as an incredible Copland-esque, soulful lament for the American spirit that made for a perfect piece of cultural diplomacy in music. You really want to hear Nathan Williams perform this piece if you get the chance!
Each hall and every audience over the week was very different from the others, but the audiences were uniformly appreciative—each in its own, distinctive way. The Soochow audience had the best showing of UT alumni who turned out in Burnt-Orange for the concert. They got treated to an arrangement of the Eyes of Texas for an encore and they returned the favor by throwing their horns up.
Two days later, the WE played in Tsuen Wan Town Hall Auditorium, one of the many satellite centers that make up greater Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated patches of the globe. That was a vast auditorium that could handily accommodate 1,500 so the several hundred who attended looked not very densely populated. This seemed to me one of the more sophisticated audiences the WE played for during the week: more adult; seemingly more familiar with concert etiquette; appreciative and generous with their applause.
Professor Junkin put together an ambitious concert program of only four pieces. The Ticheli finished off the first half, which began with two shorter compositions by UT composers Dan Welcher and Donald Grantham. Spumante by Welcher is a terrific, energetic concert overture that immediately grabs the attention of an uncertain audience. Originally commissioned by the Boston Pops, it’s characteristically Welcher in its accessible, light-hearted surface that grows out of an erudite compositional tribute to a neoclassical tradition in American classical music. The Grantham piece, J’ai été au bal takes Cajun music and New Orleans band traditions as its pretext. It’s also a fun, lively and beautifully orchestrated piece of music that has got to be fun to play for a concert band like the Wind Ensemble—an important consideration in a program that will be rehearsed and performed dozens of times over the three-week tour.
Both these pieces, as well at the Ticheli and the John Mackey piece, provided a short-shelf of American, contemporary concert band music, which makes a great premise for a concert tour of Asia. What may be more impressive, though perhaps unnoticed by much of the audience, is that this is all “new music” in the parlance of contemporary classical music: all four compositions were written in the last 15 years. So, I was impressed at how ambitious a program Professor Junkin put together on tour when many audiences would have very likely been content with an all-John Phillip Sousa program. An ambitious, sophisticated, contemporary, but to my ear thoroughly accessible and entertaining program. And to be fair, the abundant encores were heavy on crowd-pleasing, familiar tunes, including Sousa!
It’s worth mentioning what a long day any one concert date entails for the band. The entire company is over 70 strong. All need to be transported by bus, or train, or ferry. A large variety of instruments need to be shipped by truck or scavenged from the local musical countryside. (The program repertoire calls for harp, piano, celeste, double bass, bass clarinets, contra bassoons, and a huge variety of percussion instruments from tympani to a vibraphone. Too much to travel with and often in short supply in the local communities. Another ambitious aspect of the program.) Traveling in the environs of Hong Kong often—usually?—means traveling through passport controls, which requires everyone and everything to be unloaded from buses for scrutiny by mirthless passport control agents in dour, bewildering terminals. Every new concert hall is also an adventure to be sorted out. Every host organization has an impresario who has his or her own inspired ideas about how the concert program should unfold. Everyone needs to be fed—sooner or later.
That means the whole army is on the move often early in the morning for an evening concert. This army doesn’t move in rank and file, but in a clattering, flapping, rolling assortment of instrument cases, garment bags, dress shoes, boxes, brief cases, and smart phones. Every rallying point—which in Hong Kong always seemed to be in some sort of shopping mall (to be fair, every public space in Hong Kong seems to be a shopping mall)—begins with the admonition from one of the graduate musician wranglers to “put your hand on your passport!” (An army may travel on its stomach, but it doesn’t go anywhere in Asia without a passport.) Concert days often ended back at a hotel close to midnight. Long days.
One concert on Macau required a bus to a ferry, then the hour-long ferry to Macau, then another bus to the concert hall, all followed by several hours of rehearsals, tech set up, sorting out instruments and concert dress, official greetings and introductions, finding enough Egg McMuffins to feed 70, and then a 2-hour concert, followed by—for some of us—a 10-course traditional Cantonese banquet, then all the buses and ferries in reverse—with an added cadenza of a half-mile walk from the ferry back to the hotel! A great chance for me to window shop for those Gucii loafers I’ve never wanted.
A very long day. Followed by an even longer, extraordinary day crossing into China proper to the city of Shenzhen. But let me say a few things about Macau first.
The concert on Macau was an amazing experience. The audience was a healthy size and distinctly respectful. They were very orderly entering the auditorium and quiet during the performance and intermission. They never clapped between movements, and in fact, would clap at the end of a piece only when cued by those of us who knew the program. But when cued, they were exuberant clappers who called for many encores from the WE. The Stars and Stripes encore got them clapping with abandon!) But what was truly astonishing was the concert hall, which provides something of an insight into contemporary China.
Macau is it’s own Special Administrative Region of the PRC, like Hong Kong. It was a Portuguese colony as recently as 1999. You can still see Portuguese in the signage around Macau. It will revert entirely to China in time. And of course, it’s famous for its casino-based economy. Like Hong Kong, it’s thriving, enjoying the gigantic growth of the Chinese economy that spills generously into these free economic zones. Everywhere in Macau one sees high-rise apartment blocks, twenty, thirty or more stories tall, sometimes spindly towers balanced on pin-point lots, often in groves of dozens. It was reassuring to hear that Hong Kong and Macau are not in a seismically active zone. One can only imagine how these tooth-pick towers manage in a typhoon.
The concert hall where the WE performed is owned by the University of Macau, which currently serves 8,000 students on a small campus in old Macao. Five years ago, we were told, the university decided it had outgrown the old campus and needed to build a new campus on the outskirts of town. The land and capital investment were provided by China. In fact, the campus was located outside the actual boundaries of Macau-proper. The WE got to perform in this brand new concert hall on this brand new campus. In fact, we were told, this was the first public concert in that lovely hall.
This new university campus had been only five years between its inception to the day of our visit and what we found there was a sprawling, “finished” campus generously sited on a huge piece of property worthy of any public university in Texas. (Think more like Texas Tech and less like an urban campus.) I counted 20 or more huge buildings, each massive and several stories high or higher. What seemed to be dormitory blocks. Broad boulevards and pedestrian walk ways. All new landscaping that looked recently planted. The entire area was built on fill to raise the grade ten feet above typhoon flood levels. A mile-long tunnel had been dug under the sea just to reach the campus. The stately concert hall was attached to what looked like a large guest hotel and convention center. Altogether, I’d guess the campus facilities were sufficient to accommodate a university of 25,000 students, faculty and staff. Maybe more. And now here was the strangest thing, the entire campus seemed on the day we were there—admittedly a weekend—still largely unoccupied: no students in evidence; only a few people moved in and out of a vast administrative building; no parking lots full of cars; in fact few cars to be seen anywhere; there was no furniture or finishes in the buildings I looked into. Though the auditorium had beautiful wooden finishes and comfortable seating that made for a lively acoustic, the hall had no bathrooms back stage, no furniture and no water fountains in the lobby. The stage house and lobby had the vast scale of Bass Hall, something worthy of grand opera, though the auditorium had the design and dimensions of a mid-sized concert hall. The beautifully grand, glass entry doors to the hall were propped open with sand bags. The building was unfinished in many details. I saw workman demolishing a section of the otherwise finished, but empty conference center.
The dean of students told me that the entire program was scheduled to move from the old campus to the new over just the next few months. 8,000 students, hundreds of faculty and staff, all moving in a few months! It was as if an entire vast campus was built, relatively speaking, overnight, finished—more or less—so that the entire program and operation could migrate from the old to the new in a blink.
Whatever the mixed quality of results, the scale and speed of development is staggering. The financial, political and institutional resolve to accomplish so much so quickly is sobering. We naturally take comfort in the mature quality and refinement of American universities, our music schools, and venerable campuses, which are renowned for being the best in the world. But one has to wonder if American “exceptionalism” isn’t the sort of pride that might precede a decline. I’d recommend reading Harvard business professor Clayton Christenson on “disruptive innovation” in The Innovator’s Dilemma or Jared Diamond on the fates of dominant civilizations in any one of his several books.
Sunday in Shenzhen, China was without question the most amazing day I spent with the Wind Ensemble. Shenzhen is a “Special Economic Zone” just north of Hong Kong and is a hugely successful center of high-tech manufacturing with a population of over 10 million. Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures iPhones is famously—or notoriously, depending on your outlook—a major employer in Shenzhen. Some of you will be aware of the controversies that swirl around labor practices in Shenzhen that have been exposed, in part, by the American monologist Mike Daisey who himself became notorious for the fabrications in his faux-journalistic performance piece “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steven Jobs.” Daisey performed that piece in McCullough Theatre just over a year ago even as Daisey and Ira Glass were having their famous blow up on This American Life. (Also worth googling: Daisey clearly fabricated his “facts” for theatrical effect: he lied to make an entertaining point. But some of his “points” have been vindicated by more reliable journalism. This is a great pretext for wondering about the ethics of fabrication and truth-telling in the arts.)
The trip to Shenzhen began with the routines of rallying the troops and moving north on two buses, climbing up and out of the high-rise forests of Hong Kong, unloading and loading through two border control stations. We were blessed by yet another day of improbably glorious, clear weather. Arriving at Xixiang Hall at the center of Shenzhen, we were greeted at the steps to the hall by two rows of orderly school children in plaid uniform shorts and skirts, chanting a welcome to us and practicing their English: “Ello! Hailo!” And some Longhorns practicing a little Mandarin: “Niihao! Kneehow!” Totally charming State Department-worth news reel! The hall itself was draped with a gigantic banner blending images of the American and Chinese flags and lot of Chinese characters, but also this in English, presumably for our benefit: “Cultural Exchange Activity” and “The Concert of Orchestra.” Inside, the entire back of the stage had a similar banner that said “The Sound of Orchestra Over the Pacific.”
The hall was already a swirl of activity when we got inside, with clutches of primary and secondary-aged students in various uniforms milling around with instrument cases. The stage was already fully set with a vast array of chairs, stands, and unfamiliar percussion equipment. And no harp! Camera and sound crews were setting up all over the hall. One crew was assembling a giant camera boom for flying a video camera out of the orchestra pit over the heads of the band.
To the casual observer—the dean, in this case—this looks like sheer chaos. But invariably on these occasions, order emerges out of the chaos. Instrument cases, garment bags, stray shoes, boxes and other equipment would be deposited in every corner of the wings and back stage. The student musicians would start assembling at their “desks” on stage, some warming up back stage or in the hall. Graduate assistants would be scurrying back and forth, gently—to my eye anyway, “gently”—herding, problem solving, improvising solutions. Somewhere I’d always see Professor Nathan Williams calmly encouraging one group of students or another. Dr. John Morehead consulting on health issues. And always at the center of the hurricane, calmly making his way around the stage, fielding questions, handing out tickets, making sure everyone was fed, negotiating with hosts and handlers, improvising, never, ever raising his voice—well placed, soft-spoken sarcasm seems to work far better for him—the unflappable Professor Jerry Junkin. At one point—when he was down two key musicians, one felled by GI distress due to dubious street food and another by a lost passport—I asked him what his breaking point might be on crisis control. His answer was to put his focus on the quality of the experience for the students: the tour would be a success for those students come what may. A teacher to the end.
So I’m back in Austin now and I have to wrap this up and get back to work in the Dean’s Office. Briefly now—and it deserves more—there was little if any rehearsal and sound check for the Shenzhen concert. Most of that day was spent matching up our student musicians with the kid-musicians from Shenzhen (with a translator to mediate) for sectional rehearsals and lessons on the big finishing encore that would mass the WE with all the student bands that would also be performing that night. Our students said that this exchange with the Chinese students was one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire tour.
The concert that evening was a three-hour epic in a packed—even the seats were small—very warm hall full of children and families: the first half was the WE; the second half was three student bands from Shenzhen; the “third half” was the second half of the WE program—John Mackey’s Wine Dark Sea and a variety of encores; followed by a couple of hundred student musicians massed on stage, most of them standing, for a combined performance conducted by maestro Junkin and a young recruit from the audience. The huge program was punctuated throughout by a master and mistress of ceremonies introducing each new piece in both Cantonese (?) and English. Plastic American and Chinese flags were passed out at the door and were being waved throughout the program. Seats squeaked. Smart phones and tablets were held in the air taking pictures through much of the concert.
The stage management was a wild affair, with the master and mistress moving promptly on stage for a new announcement even as the band was still taking a bow from the last piece. Adding to the swirl were random photographers and videographers literally walking up on stage into the back sections of the orchestra to get their shots, all the while the camera boom flying overhead with dangling wires threatening to entangle bassoonists and bass players. And the audience clapped at every conceivable interval, with enthusiasm. Totally charming and exhausting.
As amazing as the concert experience was, the evening was not over after the final encore of massed bands. Our hosts were good enough to plan in a café in the basement of the hall a “Dumpling Banquet” of traditional steamed dumplings and beer. (The dumplings were steamed. The beer was deliciously cold—a perfect combination!) You can imagine the reaction of 70 sweaty, tired musicians and staff when they had gotten back into their jeans and found heaping platters of dumplings and ice-cold Chinese beer waiting for them. The banquet was accompanied by spectacular performances by local musicians on traditional Chinese instruments: a Dizi, a bamboo flute; a Xun, or ocarina, a clay flute; and one Erhu player (the Erhu is a two-stringed, bowed instrument) that had the entire room on its feet clapping and cheering. I was very proud of our students, as tired and dumpling-besotted as they were, that when these musicians played for them, they were both attentive and appreciative.
And of course, the evening closed out with some courageous karaoke of doubtful musical merit that was no doubt captured on smart-phone video for posterity before all climbed back on the buses for the sleepy trek back to Hong Kong.
I was on board my flight back to Austin the next morning, exhausted, but missing the UT Wind Ensemble, which had the day off before heading on to Beijing.
My thanks to all our students, our faculty—especially Jerry and Nathan—and the support staff for this unforgettable musical adventure “over the Pacific.” You did the University of Texas proud! Congratulations to all! I hope your experiences in Beijing and London are as unforgettable as they were Shenzhen. Safe travels home!
- Dean Dempster