An encounter with a three-year-old in front of Beijing’s famous ‘Egg’ gave the Tianjin-born musician pause.

I was born in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, about 100km from Beijing, so the opportunity to go on tour to China with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra filled me with a special excitement. Although my family moved to Melbourne when I was 10, Mum couldn’t miss the chance to see me play at our home country’s most prestigious venue, so this September she also hopped on a plane to Beijing to watch the SSO and Chief Conductor David Robertson perform at ‘the Egg’.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra Horn Fellow Alice Yang. Photo © Daniela Testa

Ahead of what would be the final performance on our week-long tour of Shanghai and Beijing, I decided to venture beyond stage door to meet my mum between rehearsal and concert. Just as I had spotted her, I was interrupted by a little girl of about three playing between the hedges. She was instantly drawn to my strange blue case and her mother asked me what was in it.

When I produced my French Horn and attached the bell to the body, this adorable little girl stared at it for about 20 seconds without a word. She had this intrigued look on her face and I knew instantly that she was what I would have looked like when I first saw a horn.

I invited the girl to put her fingers on the valves and press them as I blew into the mouthpiece. As the sound came out, her eyes lit up and soon she was grabbing at the instrument. “What is this?” she asked, so I taught her how to say “French Horn” in Mandarin and English.

It was a somewhat surreal experience for me, a girl who had also grown up in China and fallen in love with this shiny, curly instrument. But unlike this little girl, I didn’t lay eyes on a horn properly until I was ten. That was when Melbourne’s more laid-back lifestyle afforded me some spare time after ballet practice and I found myself wanting to learn a musical instrument. When I was growing up in China it would have been very rare for a woman to play a brass instrument – it’s still not very common. Often there’s an assumption that you need large muscles and a vast lung capacity to conquer the instrument. However, I wanted this little girl to know that these things aren’t necessarily important, and that if she wanted, she could be a horn player too.

It wasn’t long before I had to go inside to get ready for the concert. As I walked on stage to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with violin goddess Midori as soloist, I tried to spot my Mum in the audience. The hall was packed and I couldn’t see her, but I was reassured to know she was there.

Midori played with such finesse. As a musician it was wonderful to perform in a hall with such a lively acoustic that you could hear every note from your colleagues. The orchestra had to do some adapting to play in a new venue but everyone adjusted in no time. The result was an amazing performance of the kind you would expect from the SSO at the Sydney Opera House, albeit with an entirely different sound. After the concert I didn’t get to say goodbye to Mum, but I did speak to her on the phone. She told me how she had loved the variety of the music and how happy she was to see me perform on stage in a hall that is so well known in China. It was a really cool experience for us to share.

As I joined my 96 or so colleagues on the walk through the gardens of the National Centre for the Performing Arts to the bus waiting on the street after the concert, I thought about how this tour had definitely brought me closer to the other SSO Fellows. It had been a kaleidoscope of moments. I thought about how we had wandered through the numerous gardens in Shanghai and the hutongs of Beijing; of the wonderful horn solos in Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto with Geoff O’Reilly floating in the upper level of the NCPA Concert Hall as he echoed Ben Jacks’ call from the stage. And I remembered the little girl who had been playing in that garden a few hours earlier. When would she see her next horn…?


The SSO Fellows play with Anthony Marwood in Beethoven One at Sydney Opera House on November 17.

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