Shanghai Grand Theatre
Chinese shrimp dishGoldfishMichigan Symphony Band members playing Chinese flutesMichigan Symphony Band members on tour bus

Suitcase Stories
Memories of the Michigan Symphony Band China Tour

By Betsy Goolian

Seventy-six members of the University of Michigan Symphony Band toured China in May 2011. So that those of us not on the tour could get a feel for the day-to-day, a China blog—or electronic diary—was created. From the moment auditions for the touring band got underway in the fall, through the Cultural Lab sessions offered during winter semester, to departure for China on May 7, to the final concert in Los Angeles on May 29, 2011, students and faculty shared their impressions of the experience as it unfolded. These excerpts, below, tell the story.

 

AUDITIONS

 

Fall 2010 by Stephanie Elder, senior, clarinet

“Thank you—two short, simple words, signifying the end and the beginning:  the end of a months-weeks-even-years-long preparation process; the beginning of a short wait for results that feels like eternity; maybe the beginning of a life-changing experience. Five minutes or less to play your best and prove yourself—just you, your instrument, a friendly proctor, a stage, a stand, a screen, and several sets of familiar ears, just out of sight. Just like every other ensemble audition, yet somehow completely different. … And then the excitement of receiving one of the most anticipated emails ever, containing an even shorter phrase, ‘Congratulations.’”

 

 

PRE-TRIP PERFORMANCE

 

February 2011 by Professor Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and tour archivist

“With the woodwind flourishes of George Gershwin's Cuban Overture, the U-M Symphony Band launched its journey to China. After world premieres of music by U-M composers Michael Daugherty (Lost Vegas) and William Bolcom (Concerto Grosso for symphony band and saxophone quartet), the air in Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium was electric. The musicians' intensity of focus was palpable and seemed a response to the special importance of the event. I can't wait to see how our Chinese hosts respond to the virtuosity, power, and musicianship of the 2011 U-M Symphony Band. It will truly serve to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the band's trip to Russia and the Middle East under the baton of the legendary William D. Revelli.”

 

 

DEPARTURE DAY APPROACHES...

 

May 2011 by Carrie Rexroat, sophomore, French horn

“Ok everyone, here it is:  how to pack for a trip to China! I know, you’re probably thinking that you have it all under control and you’re not worried about going over the 44-lb-weight limit for our suitcases. In fact, you’ve probably not really thought about what to pack yet. Trust me, though, after reading what I’m about to tell you, you’ll think differently on the subject, and you’ll want to get a head start on planning ahead.”

 

 

FROM CHINA...

 

Hangzhou

 

May 11, 2011 by Professor Mark Clague

 

"’On fire!’ is the phrase the faculty were sharing about tonight's standing-room-only Symphony Band performance at Zhejiang University. The audience demanded not one, but four encores! We gave the Asian premieres of two works by U-M composers and the Symphony Band outdid itself. I have never been so proud of Michael Haithcock and our students—they were fantastic! Truly a remarkable evening for a crowd of around 1,400 listeners who grew to love the band more with every piece.”

 

“I love exploring cities by running. I've only been able to run twice while we've been in China, both times in Hangzhou, but it was fantastic. I sleepily laced up my shoes at 6:00 a.m. and moseyed across the lobby, greeted both times by Professor Haithcock, who apparently doesn't sleep. Hangzhou in the morning is a dream out of Chinese folklore. I was able to flit around groups of fan dancers, breeze by the meditative tai chi groups, and sync my footsteps with the resounding slaps of little old Chinese men doing some sort of calisthenic exercise that involves beating one's thighs. I'm sure I looked as strange to the Chinese exercisers as they did to me. I was the only Caucasian along the Grand Canal, one of the few runners, and remarkably, among all the people exercising, I think I was the only one sweating. The Chinese exercise regime, overall, seems less intense than ours, and is perhaps as much about the state of the mind as the state of the body.” —Lori Roy, French horn

 

 

Shanghai

 

May 13-16, 2011 by Professor Jeffrey Lyman, bassoonist

“From the ancient city of Hangzhou to the modern metropolis of Shanghai, our tour has rocketed into the future with a rapid ride on a bullet train, but the music continues. Yesterday, our four winds and percussion faculty on tour—William Campbell, trumpet, Joseph Gramley, percussion, David Jackson, trombone, and yours truly—traveled to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music for a brief concert. We were met by an amazingly gracious, friendly, and enthusiastic audience of students and faculty. … After the concert, we followed our Shanghai Conservatory colleagues to our individual master classes. The conservatory students proved to be excellent players, eager to perform for us, and their faculty acted both as hosts and translators … As anyone could have guessed, the class eventually turned to the topic of reeds and cane, proving that no matter what the country, no matter what the culture, all that really matters in the end is whether or not you've got a good reed.”

 

May 13-16 by  Alex Young, 2nd-year master’s student, trumpet

“The Celebrities. Almost everywhere we go, we become the focus of attention as many other Chinese tourists hop in for pictures with Americans. Just yesterday, at the Bund in Shanghai, Professor Jackson, our statuesque African-American trombone professor, got bombarded with pictures to the point where a police officer had to tell our guide it was time for us to leave. They yell ‘OBAMA!’ at us. The concert … what an experience! The crowd loved us so much we had to call for extra encore music from the stage. They are such an appreciative audience and we were all honored to play for them. It makes us feel like what we're doing actually matters.”

 

 

May 13-16 by Professor Mark Clague

“Musicology Hits it Big in China! The Shanghai Grand Theater is actually an arts complex with three different venues:  the main theater which holds about 1,600 and hosts all the world's great ensembles, a 600-seat drama theater, and a small recital hall that holds something like 200. My talk was in the drama theater, and, indeed, over 500 tickets had been given away. Attendees included students and retirees and a few families; most in the audience understood some English, but our tour translator Lydia Qiu, came with me to translate the talk. She was fantastic and made everything very easy for me. She did so well, in fact, that the audience even laughed at a few of my jokes!!!”

 

 

Xi’an

 

May 13-16 by Charlie Mann, tuba

“Two blocks away from our hotel and a block away from our performance venue is a public square; all of the University students in Xi'an told me to visit it and now I know why. At first, I thought it was a mall, as we know it, and thought ‘let's go shopping at 2:30 in the morning!’ Wrong. There are pillars with colorful flashing light shows synchronized to techno music. The fountains give off a brilliant show every fifteen minutes. Every surrounding building is illuminated with lights that look like rain dripping from the rooftops. There must be fifty unique statues of soldiers and horses in the center. And we could not even see the beautiful park adjacent to it at night. Our responses were all the same. ‘This is China? It looks like Vegas!’"

 

 

Shenyang

 

May 19-20, 2011 by Sam Livingston, senior, percussion

“The concerts in Shenyang were fun. We gave concerts at two universities, Liaoning and Shenyang Normal. These institutions have some of the strongest ties to Michigan in China. The president of Liaoning University is a Michigan graduate and has a lot of pride. We played The Victors as an encore, by his request. The concert at Shenyang Normal was in an arena where a high-tech stage had been installed for the institution’s 60th anniversary. Our concert was the kick-off event for the celebration and all 3,000 seats were filled. It was mainly students in the audience, and they were noisier than we were used to. As one of the Shenyang Conservatory faculty told us, most touring groups want to go to Beijing and Shanghai, but rarely want to make a stop at cities like Shenyang. We were definitely treated more like rock stars here, with hoards of volunteers helping out and welcoming us at every turn. The universities went to great length to treat us well. After the Liaoning concert, the university threw us a banquet with singing, dancing, traditional Chinese music, and juggling by students.”

 

 

Beijing & Tianjin

 

May 22-24, 2011 by Professor Mark Clague

“Performing at “The Egg”—China's National Grand Theatre, otherwise known as the National Centre for the Performing Arts—proved inspiring. It’s a coup for us to be here at all, but U-M's alumni network in China again proved vital. Maestro Zuohuang Chen, music director of the Center's own orchestra and a U-M alumnus, was key to getting us our 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning slot. It's a strange time for a concert, but well worth it to play in this exciting venue! … The band sounds FANTASTIC in the hall:  gigantic, rich, and warm. A tour like this makes the impact of acoustics on the band’s sound crystal clear. The band always sounds good—due to Michael Haithcock's own clear and consistent sound concept—but its overall color changes nevertheless. The band can be woodwind dominated (as at Liaoning), brass dominated (as in Xi’an), or even percussion dominant (as at the Shanghai Grand).”

 

May 22-24, 2011 by Sam Livingston

“The next day brought a visit to Hanban, the Chinese government agency responsible for promoting Chinese language and culture and the headquarters of the Confucius Institutes around the world. This tour is the first such project supported by Hanban and a new way for the organization to promote cultural exchange. We visited exhibits at their offices and participated in a formal event presented by the staff. Our saxophone quartet and brass quintet shared some chamber music and the Hanban staff sang a song for us.  They made it clear that the tour had been as much of a success for them as it has been for us. This visit was pretty moving and a great reminder of what an honor and unprecedented opportunity this tour has been.

 

 

LOS ANGELES: FINAL DAY

 

May 29, 2011 by Professor Mark Clague

 

“After 22 days and 10 concerts, few would have been surprised if our final Symphony Band China tour concert had been something of a let down. Yet, if anything, the musicians saved their best for last. The imposing beauty and post-modern fantasy of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles more than overcame any sense of fatigue, physical or spiritual. It is an amazing venue in which to perform, visually inspiring and acoustically satisfying. Most exciting, the hall was all-but-full with friends and supporters from the University of Michigan family. University president Mary Sue Coleman made the trip and presided over an alumni dinner and post-concert reception. All four of the U-M composers commissioned for the tour—Bill Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristy Kuster, and Bright Sheng—were there as were many deans, faculty, and students from our School of Music, Theatre & Dance. It was a great homecoming and a fantastic way to bring the tour to a close.”

 

“As Professor Haithcock left the stage, the audience rose yet again and the musicians shook hands like they had done with increasing frequency for our concerts in China. Yet, handshakes soon turned to hugs and smiles into tears as the reality of the final notes of the tour hit home. It had been a fantastic cultural, social, and musical journey that not only expanded our perspectives on the world around us, but deepened our friendships at home. I know that fifty years from now, when the Symphony Band makes another (probably interplanetary) tour, that our 2011 alumni will look back to this moment as one that shaped their lives in countless ways.”

 

 

POST-SCRIPT

 

August 2011 by Christopher Kendall, Dean, School of Music, Theatre & Dance

“Speaking from the standpoint of a devoted fan and follower of the tour, I can't say enough about the performances, on stage and off, of our Symphony Band members. The concerts were consistently brilliant, living up to the observation, made by many, that this ensemble represents the top of the form. In a wide and very demanding repertoire, the color, the precision, the balance, the intonation, the tone and articulation and above all, the musicians’ ability to inhabit the character of each work, were all incredible. Between concerts, the cultural curiosity, collegiality, the collective mutual care among the members, the responsibility for the standards of the ensemble and institution, and the warmth and connection with the Chinese audiences, presenters and students were all reason for tremendous pride in our Band members.”

 

August 2011 by Dan Graser, DMA saxophone and member of the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet

“In a particularly impromptu interview given during our preparations for this trip, I mentioned that the main thing I was looking for from this tour was, "the goose-bump-effect." That is, that wonderful physical reaction when your mental and emotional faculties are overrun with a particularly powerful moment or experience in music. I can say now that the tour is finished and the processing has begun in my mind, that I got what I was looking for.”

 

August 2011 by Professor Michael Haithcock

“We presented eleven concerts between May 5 and May 29.  While aspects of individual concerts stand-out, my most powerful memory of the performances was the consistency of their quality.  We played in some wonderful halls, but we also performed in places that presented extremely difficult acoustical demands.  We played before some wildly enthusiastic audiences but we also dealt with some behavior in concerts unlike anything we had ever experienced.  No matter the circumstances, the students rose to the specific occasion and worked hard to connect with the audience while presenting the music with great integrity.  For a teacher, there is no greater reward!  However, there might be one that comes close.  I got to know the members of the Symphony Band in ways I am not privy to during normal circumstances since I am not on Facebook.  While I was gleeful in observing their antics during bus rides, I remain moved beyond words by their care for and concern for each other.  These are not just great musicians, these are great people!  I was not surprised, but the power of their integrity, their compassion, and their ability to remain positive no matter the circumstance remains truly inspiring.  Families and friends should be very proud!!”

 

 

 

China Tour CD Coming Soon...

“The Made at Michigan recording project is now in full swing. The title is derived from the typical manufacturing labels ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Michigan.’ The repertoire was composed for the Symphony Band’s China Tour:  William Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet, Michael Daugherty’s Lost Vegas, Kristin Kuster’s Two Jades, and Bright Sheng’s Shanghai Overture, plus Shadow of Sirius by SMTD alumnus Joel Puckett, a work composed to showcase flute professor Amy Porter, and an arrangement, by Bolcom, of his famous piano work Graceful Ghost Rag.

 

This two-CD set will feature brief interviews with each composer, all of whom will be present for the recording sessions and will interact with the Symphony Band during the rehearsal process. The results will document the experience for current members of the band and serve as a primary resource for generations to come who will have access to the composers’ intentions and input through this document.”

                  —Professor Michael Haithcock, U-M Director of Bands and conductor, U-M Symphony Band