Chinese opera meets Western symphony

May 26: We arrived at Tsinghua University in the late afternoon for our first rehearsal in China. This was our first time rehearsing with our guest musicians, Zhao Yihua and Li Yiping playing, respectively, the jinghu and the pipa, two traditional Chinese instruments.

Sun Ping, Dr. Averbach, and the orchestra had all grown relatively accustomed to one another through our many rehearsals at Penn, but Mr. Zhao and Mr. Li were new to this cross-cultural music. They had to understand how they were to mesh with the orchestra, Sun Ping, and Dr. Averbach.

May 27: This was the day of our first and most important concert in Beijing. We found in the audience an array of dignitaries and politicians, all invited personally by Sun Ping to hear our experiment of merging a symphony orchestra with Beijing Opera.

The audience certainly appreciated the music. The first half of the performance simply got their ears accustomed to hearing the sound of a full Western symphony orchestra. The real treat for them was in the second half with our Beijing opera. They were so surprised at the sound when we played the first aria, hearing their traditional instruments and distinctive style of singing supported by the full orchestra sound. They liked it so much that they shouted and cheered when we finished.

May 28: We performed as part of a celebration known as the Watermelon Festival. Little did we know how important this festival was. We were met by a police escort. As we proceeded to the concert venue, vehicles and pedestrians alike parted and made way for our escort and our two buses. At times we saw the streets lined with police officers, all directing us and keeping the way clear for our passage. It felt strange, somewhat awe-inspiring yet still frightening. We had been given police escort in the capital of the largest police state in the world.

May 29: We were told that while in Beijing, one must be sure to do three things: See the Great Wall, have Peking duck and see the Forbidden City. We completed this third “must” during our last day there.

The Forbidden City was a clear manifestation of their imperial society. The degree to which it was planned, designed and arranged, as well as the array of administrative and leisure provisions made for the emperor, was astounding.

June 2: As we approached San Francisco, we all breathed a subtle sigh of relief. We were back; we had made it; and the tour had held together with triumphant success.

Suyash Paliwal (C’02) is president of the University Symphony Orchestra.

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Originally published on August 30, 2001