Perhaps explaining how a contrabassoon makes noise via smartphone translation is not so odd.
I felt like a stranger in a strange land. The AYO had just come from Europe, the birthplace of classical music. Now we were in Shanghai, a sprawling, towering, gridlocked, gleaming, sweaty, emphysematous, beautiful and enthralling place of paradoxes and contrasts. It was a city much more populous than our country. Very few people whom we encountered could speak English, but luckily some of our Chinese-speaking orchestra members helped us to feel more at home. The rest made for some great comedy, like when we were waiting in suspense to see whether we had ordered 16 dumplings or 16 orders of 6!
It’s true that China was quite a huge culture shock coming from Europe, but I realised that we might be bringing a culture shock of our own. Just as I thought that restaurant workers casually hosing down crayfish on the street next to our hotel was crazy, I realised that these people would find my instrument, the contrabassoon, equally foreign. I imagined how ridiculous I might sound through a smartphone-translation app trying to explain how this hunk of wood and metal that makes odd noises was worth ten times their average yearly wage.
Our concert in the modern Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre was well-received by an enthusiastic crowd, made all the better for the fact that it was in our first concert hall with air-conditioning – one thing that China and Australia do have in common. Another trait that we share is that classical music is not indigenous to China and Australia, as it is in Europe. Rather, both of our countries have learnt to appreciate classical music culture and have appropriated it to reflect our own unique cultures. It was fitting, therefore, to play an Australian contemporary piece, Carl Vine’s Celebrare Celeberimme, to show how classical music is developing in our country. The audience appreciated our encore of Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower), a traditional and well-loved Chinese folk song.
AYO rehearses in Beijing. Photo by Oliver Brighton
In Beijing, the absolute highlight was the National Centre for the Performing Arts. It was everything I believe a modern concert hall should be. The architecture was stunning, with soaring glass walls curving into infinity complemented by natural timber tones. It also had a well-stocked CD and score shop. Despite being opened in 2008, there was something incredibly historic about the hall, being close to the Great Hall of the People, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We were in the political and cultural heart of this vast country of over one billion people.
The Beijing concert, our longest of the tour, saw our best Brahms performance to date. At the end, Sariah gave an excellent speech in Mandarin thanking the audience for their presence, which served to further break the ice between the audience and orchestra. The energy of the crowd by this point was unbelievable, and was sustained throughout three encores. The Khatchaturian Galop included an incredible cadenza by Ben Clapin which was met with cheers from the audience.
The challenges that come with overseas travel served to emphasise the sense of triumph we all felt during the Beijing concert five. I felt then more than ever that we, as a national youth orchestra playing in another country’s national performing arts centre, were the ultimate cultural ambassadors. We have shown European and Chinese audiences the versatility that Australian musicians are capable of – we were as comfortable playing the Australian work as we were playing Mahler’s First Symphony in a Viennese style under a Viennese conductor. It has been an eye-opening time in China and Europe, and we are all so excited now to show our family and friends in Australia the product of our hard work over the last month.
The Australian Youth Orchestra finishes their tour tonight, August 8, at the Sydney Opera House