Notes by Jonathan Bagg, violist, Ciompi Quartet

Ciompi in China

Ciompi Quartet members Hsiao-mei Ku, Eric Pritchard,
Jonathan Bagg and Fred Raimi.

In December 2003, with pianist Jane Hawkins, we took our act to the stages of seven Chinese cities: Shanghai, population 17 million, was the largest, followed by Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Ninpo, and finally Jiaxing, a minor city of about 3 million. It was a return visit for the Ciompi, who had performed in Beijing and Guangzhou in 1991. Those cities were almost unrecognizable to me at the street level, so thoroughly has the new economy’s drive to modernize succeeded in transforming them, with steel-and-glass architecture, wide new highways, and dazzling lights. It was tempting for our small band of musicians to wonder if our music could possibly be noticed above the din of progress in the heart of these supercharged cities. But we were assured by our Chinese colleagues that, though relatively rare in China, chamber music does attract a core of aficionados. And they were confident that through tours like ours a greater following for string quartet concerts was developing; they spoke of plans for a future visit.

The audiences were good, bigger and perhaps more sophisticated in the major cities than in smaller ones, where we sensed something like polite wonderment. But clearly in every place there were lovers of classical music, always a few autograph-seekers, and much enthusiasm for our music. China seems to have its own particular customs when it comes to audience response. Spontaneous clapping between movements was not discouraged. However, applause at the end of a work tended to be modest, more a chance for respectful recognition than for the audience to really weigh in, and it was not generally prolonged to unseemly lengths. We considered it a victory when we were asked to return to the stage for a second bow!

Ciompi Quartet violinist Hsiao-mei Ku acted as mistress of ceremonies, introducing and interpreting our offerings in Chinese while the rest of us sat onstage smiling, clueless. Our program for the tour was selected by Hsiao-mei with an eye to pleasing the local audiences: Ravel’s String Quartet, Erwin Schulhoff’s “Five Pieces,” two Chinese folk songs in arrangements by Zhou Long, and Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Our encore was an arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “Ragtime Dance.”

The first several concerts in the tour were arranged by a Shanghai impresario named Li Ke. His is a new profession in China, as until recently any bookings were done through a government ministry, which in fact still must approve all performances. Central control is yet a fact of life, but it is people like Mr. Li who make it all happen nowadays. He is clearly a very skilled manager, and our tour with him went as smooth as silk. Among other things, Mr. Li arranged a press conference in Shanghai to get the attention of the media, and our concert there was recorded for national TV broadcast. We also had a chance to meet some of the Shanghai Conservatory’s brightest graduates, winners of the Naumberg and Paganini competitions, and to coach them in a string trio. In Beijing we came under the care of Mr. Zhang, the government official who had sanctioned all our appearances in China with an official invitation. Our concert was in a large hall adjacent to the Forbidden City. Playing there was the climactic event of the tour: we had ascended to perform in what still felt like the grand imperial capital, and we were treated with all the appropriate fanfare.

We had many conversations with Mr. Li in which we attempted to penetrate the complexities involved in coordinating our tour. His lifeblood seems to be his network of contacts and his ability to work closely with them: every city to which we traveled (always escorted by Mr. Li in a van, with a driver) had its own well-staffed organization, with several people employed to make our concert run smoothly. For example, someone would usually be dispatched to reconnoiter the hall prior to our arrival. This was absolutely necessary, as the halls were often cold and closed tight; heat was turned on only at the last minute, and if it happened too late in the game we might be exhaling frost at concert time.

As an antidote to the cold there was always tea: green tea which calms and focuses, helps to shed the grogginess of travel, and warms chilled hands. I came to see drinking of tea before a meal – or any time we had a breather – as a highly civilized custom. As a prelude to a meal it is particularly effective, clearing away the tension of whatever we were doing prior to coming to the table, making us focus inwardly and ready ourselves for the coming feast.

And feast we did. Great meals were prepared for us. Chinese food cooked as it should be, with its wondrous variety of flavor and ingredients, speaks eloquently for the richness and sophistication of Chinese culture, and it was clearly offered to us by our hosts with a full understanding of its power to impress. In Beijing we were treated to Peking Duck at the most illustrious establishment purveying that specialty. I found myself saying many times while eating in China, “Now I know what all other versions of this dish are aspiring to!” Meals were also our chance to connect with our colleagues. Conversation was most often advanced by Hsiao-mei’s tireless translating, but occasionally we were able to go it alone in rudimentary fashion with gestures and the occasional solitary word from a tiny shared vocabulary. At one meal Mr. Li entertained us memorably with a long tale of an encounter he’d had with a bear in the frozen north of China during his ten-year exile under the Cultural Revolution. His gestures were so vivid and his speech was so compelling that only minimal translation was necessary.

Our sightseeing included many traditional tourist attractions from China’s imperial past: the Rock Gardens of Souzhou, Hangzhou’s West Lake, the Summer Palace in Beijing. But traveling along the highways we were also astounded by the modern-day parameters of life on China’s east coast: great cities, connected by areas of intensely cultivated land gradually being overtaken by huge industrial zones and apartment blocks, but much of it is crisscrossed by wide and presumably ancient canals and rivers still busy with the boat traffic which for two thousand years has sustained the lives of the Chinese people.

The tour wound down in Hsiao-mei’s hometown of Guangzhou, where we met many members of her family for the first time. Our first stop was at the home of Hsiao-mei’s 92 year-old mother. Upon hearing Jane Hawkins’ sweet English accent, Mrs. Ku let slip an unguarded “I love you,” as though remembering her family’s long ago connection to England, where her young husband, Hsiao-mei’s father, had studied before the century’s great upheavals began.

Our concert in Guangzhou was in a small hall at the Pearl River piano factory, which in fact was the sponsor of our stay there. Touring the factory proved quite interesting. Seeing close-up the highly evolved production made real for me the kind of industrial prowess that is powering China’s transformation. The four of us – violinist Eric Pritchard, cellist Fred Raimi, Jane, and I – said goodbye to Hsiao-mei in Guangzhou and took the train to Hong Kong. Hsiao-mei remained to recover in the bosom of her family, and presumably to enjoy some good home cooking.