In October, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows performed in Nanjing at the invitation of the Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting, Television, Press and Publication. The SSO Fellows are 13 young artists who are mentored by orchestra members, rehearse and perform concerts with the orchestra, and participate in masterclasses with guest artists. The first international Fellows tour in SSO’s history, they performed two concerts as part of the 2018 Nanjing Art Festival.

SSO Fellows performing in Nanjing. Photo © Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting, Television, Press and Publication

Led by their Artistic Director Roger Benedict, the Fellows showcased works from both countries in a nod to Australia’s continuing cultural relationship with China. Poignantly, they performed Miriama Young’s Time and Tide: Echoes of Sydney Harbour, commissioned for the Fellows through the assistance of Dr Janet Merewether. The work is dedicated to Dr Merewether’s late mother, Tempe Merewether, a long-time supporter of the Fellowship. As well as Time and Tide, the Fellows performed an arrangement of the popular Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower, joined by 10-year-old erhu player, Yujia Cai.

As well as performing, the Fellows worked with local young musicians as part of outreach workshops at the University of Nanjing, the Taicheng Study Room and the Nanjing Little Red Flower Art Troupe.

Here, two Fellows – double bass player Alanna Jones and cellist Daniel Pini – share their experiences of playing, teaching and exploring in Nanjing.

Alanna Jones, double bass

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in the first Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellowship international tour – an unprecedented event in the Fellowship program’s history. We were hosted graciously by the Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting, Television, Press and Publication, performing as part of the 2018 Nanjing Arts Festival and taken to many cultural sites showcasing the beauty of Nanjing. The days following our arrival we rehearsed and performed two concerts to a vast and appreciative audience.

Alanna Jones. Photo © Keith Saunders

Our hotel was next to the Nanjing Great Hall of the People where we performed, so we were able to walk around and explore the surrounding area between rehearsals. Crossing the street is an adventure in China, but everyone was able to adapt quickly. Amanda Tillett, our trombonist, made friends with a bao shop owner very near the hotel and would return with an abundance of red bean buns. We were excited to try as much Chinese food as we could since Western cuisine is not quite the same. We were treated to a 12-course welcome banquet where we sat at possibly the largest round table I have ever seen. It sat all the Fellows and officials involved in the tour from both Sydney and China – about thirty of us in all!

After we performed our two evening public concerts, we were taken to many cultural sites around Nanjing. The capital for many dynasties, Nanjing has a rich cultural heritage. We visited the Nanjing City Wall, which has been standing for over 600 years. Below the wall, we were taken to a traditional tea ceremony at the Taicheng Study Room, which was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. As part of the ceremony, a musician performed on a guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither, and Rollin Zhao, one of our violin Fellows, spontaneously played a duet with him. We were then shown how to make tea in a traditional and ceremonial way, which was very special. We were also taught Chinese calligraphy and printmaking. Feeling enriched, we explored an old part of town, which looked like old wealthy homes but had been turned into markets and teashops. It almost felt like stepping back in time.

Alanna Jones with Yujia Cai. Photo © Benjamin Moh

A large part of the trip was dedicated to outreach performances. We travelled to the Nanjing University of the Arts and the Nanjing University of Science and Technology and performed concerts with the students. Both were lovely afternoons of music making and cultural sharing. After one such performance, we travelled to the Nanjing Little Red Flower Art Troupe, which is the school of our fabulous ten-year-old erhu (traditional Chinese violin) soloist, Yujia Cai. I have wanted to learn to play erhu for a very long time, and bought one in China last year. She was kind enough to give me a lesson and I am very excited to get practicing. She and her peers performed for us and it was truly inspirational.

Feeling a little exhausted but with full hearts and full bellies we returned to Sydney for a busy end of the year. The Fellowship has a few more concerts and many of us will start rehearsals for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming international tour to Europe, which promises to be just as exciting.

Daniel Pini, cello

The 2018 Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellowship China Tour was a both a surprise and a delight. It was my first time travelling to Asia, and the unknown was daunting.

Daniel Pini. Photo © Keith Saunders

I flew with the other Fellows to Nanjing, arriving 11 hours later in a city that pulsed and glowed, every building radiating multicoloured lights. The waiting bus, also lit with piercing blue and red LEDs, drove us through the city and to our accommodation.

A gorgeous landscape painting several stories tall loomed as we entered our hotel and set the tone for the tour: exquisite, larger than life, and different to anything we had experienced.

Our time in Nanjing was a chance to exchange ideas and learn from one another. Our minimal exposure to Chinese music and cultural traditions meant everything new competed for our attention. It was an overwhelming but exciting experience.

We performed for the Nanjing audience and were shown new musical styles and ideas through performances by Chinese musicians. We were also taught about different Chinese cultural aspects including the Chinese zither guzheng, tea ceremony, calligraphy, Chinese folklore, and taken through the many architectural marvels of Nanjing including their city wall, Buddhist temple, and Confucius temple.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows were invited to play at the Nanjing Great Hall of the People as part of the 2018 Nanjing Arts Festival. Our hosts, the Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting, Television, Press and Publication had shared news of our arrival and the concerts were well attended with an enthusiastic audience. The repertoire showcased a mix of old and new classical music (Mozart, Françaix, and Young), Australian folk songs (Botany Bay, Click Go the Shears and Waltzing Matilda), and traditional Chinese music including a collaboration with Yujia Cai, a talented award-winning 10-year-old erhu player.

SSO Fellows touring Nanjing. Photo © Benjamin Moh

Over the week-long tour we performed several times, both in concerts, and in workshops, where Chinese musicians played traditional Chinese music and Western music for us as well. We were invited to the Nanjing University of the Arts and the Nanjing University of Science and Technology to collaborate, and witnessed a very special performance from the Nanjing Little Red Flower Art Troupe, a performing arts school for children.

The school visit was particularly special. We were shown their impressive facilities, then introduced to some of the incredibly talented students who played and sang for us. The concert ended with arrangements of Three Blind Mice and Click Go the Shears with matching choreography.

Other highlights included being guided through the sacred sights of Nanjing. I was particularly moved by the Buddhist temple. Extending several stories underground with cavernous chambers, the temple was intricate, solemn, and beautiful.

Some memorable moments were not just those of cultural exchange, but also of bonding with my colleagues, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows. Often, we needed to step back to process the overwhelming new environment. Experiencing this tour together deepened our understanding of each other and gave us a new appreciation when performing together.

This trip was one of cultural exchange and collaboration. I arrived and felt isolated by the language barrier. And then we played music, and immediately I could make myself understood. The essential role of music was further driven home for me while listening to the children at the school we visited as they performed. A universal language, it is a means of expression, of communication, and of understanding.