Heading to various airports on various days, the Emerson String Quartet met up for their first concert in mainland China, in the city of Shenzen. Accompanying them were family members and Emerson recording producer Da-Hong Seetoo, who helped arrange the trip in collaboration with the Chinese presenting organization, Propel. The quartet’s three appearences were in Shenzen, Tianjin, and Beijing.
In David’s words
There are very few musically significant locations left in the world that the Emerson Quartet has not visited, and yet, for whatever reason, we had never played on Chinese mainland soil (excluding Hong Kong and Macau, which aren’t considered mainland). So this trip was an historic one for the quartet, and for me especially, an 11th hour opportunity to put a glaringly-missing pin on my map of Emerson worldwide appearances.
An early arrival in Beijing allowed me, Philip Setzer, and Da-Hong Seetoo, with our families, the chance to visit the Great Wall and Forbidden City on consecutive days.
The presence of family and friends has always been a great gift on any Emerson tour, and it was especially gratifying to be able to share these extraordinary experiences with our loved ones.
Left to Right: Linda Setzer, Eric Tang, Evelyne Tang, Lilian Finckel, Da-Hong Seetoo, Wu Han
Left to right: Elizabeth Tang, Wu Han, Katia Setzer, Linda Setzer, Lilian Finckel
The heat hovered around 100 degrees in the daytime.
Evening was better, allowing us to visit one of China’s famous and ubiquitous attractions, a Night Market, complete with unfathomable things to eat.
On Tuesday evening, after our Forbidden City tour, Wu Han and I performed at the American Embassy as representatives of Lincoln Center, at the request of Lincoln Center president, Reynold Levy. Lincoln Center’s programming and administrative expertise are helping to guide new arts centers in China.
On Wednesday Philip, Da-Hong and I flew south to the city of Shenzen, which sits across the border from Hong Kong. Shenzen, once a small fishing village, became, under Deng Xiaoping, China’s first special economic zone, and has expanded rapidly ever since. It is now one of China’s most modern cities.
Being near the water (it is a thriving port) the heat was coupled with intense humidity, providing a special challenge for humans, instruments and buildings.
The concert, held in a large and beautiful hall, and was well attended. Da-Hong provided commentary from the stage on each of the works we performed: Mozart’s K. 575, the Shostakovich 8th Quartet, and Dvorak’s “American” Quartet. He also gamely announced the encores, darting on and off the stage as necessary. (I had prepared and practiced the encore announcements in Chinese but spared the audience my undoubtedly laughable pronunciation).
After a delicious late dinner we returned to the stunning Marco Polo hotel, a gracious sponsor of the series, but not before visiting the 96th floor of a nearby skyscraper hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Asia.
Thursday was a travel day from hell, as we left early only to sit on the runway for four-and-a-half hours due to bad weather. Landing in the late afternoon in Tianjin, we were rushed to the Cultural Center for a press conference and a national broadcast filming of an excerpt from our program. Darkness falling, we scrambled to a nearby restaurant for a much-welcomed meal but then had to cap the day off with a 2-and-a-half hour bus ride back to Beijing.
On Friday we turned right around, boarded the bus again (this time with most of our families) and headed back to Tianjin for our concert.
The Cultural Center is on a scale that I have never seen. Its size makes the Kennedy Center look almost miniature. The concert hall sits on a lake the size of several football fields, and boasts a fountain which produces a phenomenal show, synchronized with music that is blasted all around the lake.
For this concert, Wu Han provided a pre-concert talk (her first one in Chinese) in an adjacent room.
The crowd seemed to love the concert and, as always, it is extremely gratifying to connect with and perform for an entire hall of people who have never heard us before. After the concert, the lobby was mobbed with people waiting for autographs on their programs and CD’s. A spectacular lighted fountain show greeted us as we departed.
Left to right: Elizabeth Tang, Stephanie Seetoo, Leon Seetoo, Lilian Finckel
For dinner we were treated to a famous local delicacy – a dumpling called “Go-bo-li-bao” which means roughly: “this is so delicious that even your faithful dog will leave you for it.” They were delicious indeed, and it was a special pleasure to spend a whole meal with the man who made the tour possible, cultural entrepreneur Chien Chung, director of Propel Management Company which brought us to China, and also director of programming at the Tianjin Cultural Center.
The next morning, while the rest of the crowd slept in, Wu Han and I headed for the Beijing Central Conservatory, passing famous Tianamen Square on the way.
I was honored to join the distinguished list of visiting professors.
Four cellists from the pre-college division played concertos by Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, Dvorak and Davidoff. Each one was phenomenally gifted, and it was an inspirational morning. Da-Hong and Wu Han assisted with translation and some piano accompanying as needed.
We were equally amazed to see the extensive buildings of the conservatory, which teaches one thousand students in its college and another thousand in its pre-college division. The building holding the practice rooms is a full fourteen stories high.
For our final concert, we were driven through massive gates and past heavy security into the very heart of China: the Forbidden City.
The concert hall of the Forbidden City is a somewhat worn but glorious venue with stellar acoustics, and a distinguished history of concerts by the world’s most important musicians. It was indeed gratifying for the Emerson Quartet to finally join this list.
After the concert, we experienced perhaps the largest collection of record buyers and autograph seekers ever, probably only rivaled by our recent experiences in Korea at the LG Arts Center. It was of course also very heartening to see how young our audience was, and how thrilled they were to hear and meet us.
A final late dinner, surrounded by all our managers, tour guides and many invited young musicians, capped off the Emerson’s first visit to China. I am especially grateful that I had the opportunity to appear with my quartet in its debut on the mainland, and I am happy that I may have helped pave the way for many more tours for the Emerson in the future. The Chinese audience, comprised of so many music lovers and young musicians, deserves to hear quartet playing on the level the Emerson will continue to provide, and undoubtedly, the quartet’s presence in China will help chamber music to take a secure foothold in this most vast and rapidly growing society.