Tour of China
Coull Quartet and Clelia Iruzun, October 2009
Philip Gallaway’s impressions
Although the Quartet has toured Asia in the past, our only previous visit to China was to Hong Kong while it was still under British rule, so when we were invited to tour this rapidly developing country with the brilliant Brazilian pianist Clelia Iruzun, we jumped at the chance. The tour was to be centred around Shanghai and Beijing, culminating in two concerts at Beijing University.
Shanghai is a city buzzing with excitement and energy, where even crossing a road can be a stressful experience (the best technique is to keep walking at a slow, steady speed, while the scooters, bikes and cars skilfully manage to avoid you). One would imagine that the pace of life here could cause high blood pressure, but a visit to one of the many public parks soon illustrates just how seriously the Chinese take personal fitness and relaxation. In Luxum park on a Wednesday morning, I saw many people jogging and practising Thai Chi, but more remarkable was the sight of dozens of elderly couples happily dancing together, ad hoc groups of singers in full voice, and a variety of instrumentalists playing soulful music (purely for their own enjoyment, not busking for money). Everyone seemed totally unconcerned by the fact that they were within earshot of each other. From our hotel, overlooking the park, there was a fascinating melange of all these sounds, mingling with the rhythmic beeping of car horns.
Our concert programme throughout the tour consisted of quartets by Mozart and Britten, piano music by Mendelssohn, Schumann's piano quintet, and a movement of the Yellow River concerto, which we had been asked to include by our Chinese agent, Xue Mei. In one concert, (where we had considerable competition from mobile phones), as soon as we began playing this popular Chinese work the audience erupted into spontaneous applause, reminiscent of the Viennese audience on New Year's Day at the opening of the Blue Danube. Mobile phones apart, the audiences, which included all age groups, listened intently throughout and were highly appreciative. At the end of one concert we were surprised when the audience stopped clapping almost before we had left the stage. We were in the wings packing everything away when we heard enthusiastic applause starting up again, so we hastily retrieved our instruments and returned to give an encore.
The concert halls were all modern with good facilities, examples of the recent modernisation and development which was apparent wherever we went - new railway flyovers and motorways under construction, state-of-the-art metro systems, and of course, the impressive Shanghai Maglev train, capable of speeds up to 430 kph.
Beijing, said to have an area of over 16,000 square kms, presented us with some logistical problems, particularly as our hotel was some way out of the centre. Every journey seemed long and slow, not helped by the heavy security everywhere due to President Putin's presence that week. We were, however, fortunate enough to have some free time there, enabling us to visit the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Will we be returning? We certainly hope so – while we were there we were able to meet the Beijing and Shanghai representatives of the University of Warwick, where we are Quartet-in-Residence, and they were both keen to explore future collaborations, perhaps to include schools visits and workshops, in conjunction with any concert tour in the future. Besides, although we spent considerable time practising, we still have a long way to go in perfecting our skills in the use of chopsticks!