Going the Distance

Taking Carmina Burana Across Continents and Cultures

In May, the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) embarked on a two-week tour of China. The symphonic chorus teamed up with the Qingdao Symphony Orchestra on its own domestic tour, giving performances of Carmina Burana in the cities of Qingdao, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

When the Qingdao Symphony was invited by the Kennedy Center to be part of a 2009 festival highlighting the music of China, CASW joined them on the program for Porgy and Bess. The two ensembles had been looking for an opportunity to work together again, and six years later, their plans finally came to fruition.

Finding the right collaboration

Zhang Guoyong, conductor of the Qingdao Symphony Orchestra, was resolute in his conviction that the work performed for the tour should be Carmina Burana. The Carl Orff masterpiece is no stranger to American singers and audiences—the work's bombastic opening with its strain of "O Fortuna" has for years been the textbook cue for drama and pathos in countless movie trailers and commercials.

Is the piece any less recognizable half a world away? Absolutely not. "The Chinese people just love this piece," said Zhang. "On television, they always use Carmina Burana as background music." The rare opportunity to hear the work sung by an American choir was another draw for the Chinese audience—the work has received many performances in Shanghai and Beijing, but seldom by Americans.

The Choral Arts Society poses in front of one of their China tour performance venues, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing .

The shared familiarity with Carmina is all the more unique because of China’s choral and musical history. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Western music was banned altogether. Conservatories closed, many artists and teachers were sent to do physical labor in remote areas, and acceptable forms of artistic expression were severely curtailed.  According to Zhang, the masterworks of the European canon—such as the requiems of Verdi, Brahms, and Mozart—have not been embraced in China the way they have been in the states, at least not as of yet.

The repertoire choice brought into focus a distinct difference between the psychology of music-making in the two cultures. As Zhang explained to the chorus from the podium in rehearsal, “In Chinese music, there is always a hidden meaning.” The same cannot be said for Carmina, which famously sets a collection of poetry written by medieval monks extolling the pleasures of the flesh.

“I was very nervous about the cooperation. We have different languages, different habits, different cultures...[but] I finally found that there is no difference. It's very easy to understand each other.”   -Zhang Guoyong

"The text is so earthy…it doesn't hold back," muses CASW artistic director Scott Tucker. "Connecting with 12th century clerics and knowing that they have the same passions and struggles—the fact that the text is so old and so immediate at the same time [is what makes it special].”

Zhang used the emotional music and the expressive quality of the American singers as a learning experience for the symphony. "I am a very strict conductor, and usually we play very seriously,” he said. But I chose this piece because I wanted the orchestra to see the smiles on the faces [of the chorus]. When they sing, everybody smiles. The orchestra, they are touched inside, I can feel that. I think this tour will leave a very deep impression."

Putting the pieces together

Typically, choruses and orchestras rehearse a piece separately and come together for only a rehearsal or two before the performance. Of course, two ensembles coming together from different countries—speaking different languages and knowing little about each other—is a less frequent and more daunting undertaking.

"I was very nervous about the cooperation," said Zhang. "We have different languages, different habits, different cultures. That’s why I went to Washington [for the chorus' send-off performance prior to the tour], just to listen. And I finally found that there is no difference. It's very easy to understand each other."

Zhang likened it to building an airplane, where component parts are produced precisely in separate locations, and then seamlessly assembled into a complicated machine. “The only thing the chorus members need to get used to is my gesture, and that’s it—and they learn so quickly.” It may have helped that, although the Qingdao Symphony was performing Carmina Burana for the first time, many of the choristers had sung the piece two, three, or even ten times.

For Tucker, the mundane details of the collaboration, such as placing the choir on stage and getting organized behind the scenes, took on a new significance because of the extra effort required to communicate. “We can use the same words but be so far apart in what we're talking about,” he said. “It’s fun to figure that out and bridge that gap. It's endlessly fascinating.”

Social time together was included in the itinerary to help break the ice. The chorus and the orchestra held a welcome dinner at the beginning of the tour, overcoming the language barrier while sharing traditional Chinese dishes family-style. And whatever communication challenges existed, they were not manifested while making the music.

Choral Arts Society artistic director Scott Tucker signs a program for one of his Chinese colleagues on the tour.

“He (Zhang) clearly had a lot of respect for us as a chorus and that comes through in all of his interactions with us,” explained chorister Heather MacDonald during the tour. “He’s incredibly kind and generous to us. And you can tell he’s having such a great time.”

While Zhang molded the ensemble to bring out his interpretation of Carmina, he also responded to the tendencies of the chorus, saying “of course I adjust myself to follow them—it’s both sides.” On later tour stops, Zhang subtly adjusted on which passages he pushed the tempo forward, and on which ones he eased back.

“I feel like he’s becoming more comfortable with it and figuring out what feels right,” said MacDonald.

The significance of a cross-cultural collaboration

Tucker was quick to note that—for the chorus in particular—the tour was not merely an artistic endeavor. The trip represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of the singers, and the performances came in the context of being immersed in a new world. “We're not just connecting across the centuries with these monks but we're connecting across cultures, and that's a really unique and wonderful opportunity.”

Zhang feels that music opens the door for anyone to participate in cultural diplomacy. "We are the ambassadors," he said. “The title doesn't matter.”

Touring comes with its own set of logistical challenges that can threaten to derail performances. Jet lag, adjusting to a new venue every night, and headaches unrelated to artistic matters add to the stress. “It’s easy to focus on what might not be perfect,” Tucker said. “I wanted the chorus to always be focused on the bigger picture of what this is all about.”

When traveling from Shanghai to Guangzhou, storms canceled the orchestra’s flights and left their instruments behind. Players arrived just before concert time and were forced to use loaners for the performance. Still, the show continued without missing a beat, and afterwards the chorus waited backstage to applaud every last orchestra member as they departed.

Qingdao Symphony Orchestra conductor Zhang Guoyong and Choral Arts Sociey executive director Debra Kraft.

Zhang also hopes that CASW's trip will be a step in raising the level of the choral art form in his home country. “We need very strict training. That’s very important for Chinese choruses.” He notes that volunteer choruses in China rarely reach the same level of artistry as an American volunteer chorus like CASW. “It’s very fresh for me to see Scott leading the chorus, even in a warm-up. In China, in most of the choruses, there are no warm-ups—they just go to the stage.” And while there are “countless” volunteer choruses, Zhang estimates that there are only 20 professional choruses in all of China. In comparison, there are 67 professional chorus members of Chorus America in the U.S., which houses a quarter of China’s population.

Now having collaborated on two projects (once in the U.S. and once in China) the leaders of both organizations are eager to further the partnership. As Zhang and CASW executive director Debra Kraft toyed around with repertoire ideas for next time, the maestro's eyes lit up with each new possibility.

"We don't get a chance to talk much, but the eyes of the chorus are very pure. When we make eye contact, I feel very happy. My heart is warm."

Mike Rowan traveled to China with The Choral Arts Society of Washington and sang in the chorus on the tour. He is communications manager at Chorus America.

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