Sunday in Chongqing

We were in and out of Chongqing in less than 24 hours, arriving mid-afternoon Sunday and departing Monday morning for Beijing. The concert came in between. You’ll get no summing up of this mega-city from me. Fair to say, the jaws of everyone on this tour dropped when we saw it, or began to see it, because it goes on and on. Downtown, or what we thought was downtown, was like Manhattan on steroids. Depending on how you count, some 30 million people live here.

“I don’t like days off when I’m on tour,” Carl St.Clair told me, seated in the back of a van on the way to a press and fan event in the early evening. He had spent his entire Saturday in Wuxi, a free day for everyone, in the hotel, resting, refreshing, staying focused.

The event was held in the well-stocked gift shop of the concert venue. St.Clair was greeted and treated as a celebrity at the event, cameras clicking. He asked two Chinese Pacific Symphony musicians — violinist Angel Liu and Shelly Shi, both of whom speak Chinese — to join him at the microphones. A translator got St.Clair’s words across to the gathering.

Chongqing Grand Theatre is a modernistic chunk of metal on the outside, shaped rather like a British World War I tank. It is redeemed by its location on the water and the surrounding theater of skyscrapers, an impressive forest of architecture. It also lights up at night.

I sat close to the stage in the cavernous hall, so can’t properly judge the acoustics. The strings came through in great detail, though, and the orchestra sounded excellent. Touring agrees with the group, young and old, at least musically. 

A young man moved down to a seat in front of me at intermission, saying what he had heard on the first half was so good that he wanted to be closer. Assistant conductor Roger Kalia joined me as well and we struck up a conversation with the young man, a violinist of unknown talent it turned out. Most amusing was his question to us after the performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which garnered the usual roar. St.Clair went off and came on stage, in the usual manner. The young man was confused. “Where is he going?” he asked. We informed him that this was tradition — “Oh!” — and that if he wanted to hear more he had to keep clapping.

Chinese concert halls seem to have pre-recorded gongs to warn audience members to take their seats. Chongqing’s warning sounded just as the orchestra was tuning. The usual list of rules were announced in two languages. I especially liked this simple one: “Please look after your children.” A good rule for life as well as concert halls.

After the concert, a good many of the musicians went up to the Sky Bar and then the observation deck at the hotel, sipping cocktails, smoking cigars and conversing into the wee hours. Touring brings orchestras together in ways rarely found on home turf. 

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