Good Things in China!
We are at the end of the wildest Friction Quartet adventure to date. One that has been filled with glory, inspiration, new friendships, and travel bliss. We came to Harbin to play the best chamber music of our lives and that's exactly what we did. One of our favorite coaches and Kevin's former teacher, Bettina Mussumeli, once told us in preparation for a competition, "make sure it's your day." It was our day and we captured the Second Prize at the Schoenfeld International String Competition. Notos Quartet earned First Prize and they deserved it. What an incredible group.
The money and prestige are very important of course, but I feel the greatest gifts we received were a beautiful shared experience of travel through chamber music and reinvigorated hunger for excellence. For a week we have been immersed in some of the best string playing on the planet in a country that is in the midst of a prolific (and massively expensive) cultural development period. The Schoenfeld Competition is one of the world's premier Violin and Cello competitions. The number of jaw dropping violin extraordinaires competing was staggering. Furiously flying arpeggios and soaring concerto themes bounced off the walls of the gargantuan Harbin Conservatory 15 hours a day. The constantly decreasing number of practicing musicians was a bleak reminder of the brutality of competition. To be aware of the disappearing sound as we prepared for our final round created a unique intensity.
The Conservatory is inconveniently a 30 minute taxi ride north of the bustling downtown and China's "regulation" of allowed internet sites clears one's mind of distraction. You sleep on the rock hard beds during the 8 hours of hot darkness. You jog on the brand new track after waking up at 5am with the rising sun. You ingest the 3 day rotation of traditional Chinese dishes. You listen to impeccable solo Bach bombarding you from all angles. You are primed for the best practice of your life so long as food poisoning doesn't destroy you (glad you're feeling better Kevin!) and you remember to bring toilet paper. And when you've had enough practice, you take a walk through the nearby neighborhoods and University and explore a magical side of China that most tourists have not seen.
Every night, a vibrant market pops up next to the university. The street food looked delicious and was extremely tempting but I didn't take the risk. Though I did continuously indulge in the nearby Longhai Dumpling restaurant. Multi-colored neon lights illuminate every store front and create a carnival atmosphere. This is a gathering place for a community that seems totally content. Where the market meets the river is a dance floor. My new friend and volunteer for the competition, Lena, explained that mostly middle aged women are courageous enough to show off their moves. There was one very sweaty man that was having the time of his life doing a traditional Chinese line dance.
The Harbin Conservatory, the partnering host of the Competition, is a campus fit for 8,000 students, with around 10 building many of which are 5 stories high- and 300 Steinway Pianos! The exterior is pomp and circumstance to the extreme and beautifully crafted, while, aside from the acoustically excellent and highly decorated concert hall, the interior is extremely minimal. A large staff lives on site to serve the students that don't exist yet. In it's inaugural year, the Conservatory drew only 80 students. Rumor has it this year will bring in up to 800 students though. It's a real-life "if we build it, they will come" and one in a series of massive new music venues. The Harbin Grand Theater is a mesmerizing achievement by MAD Architects that evokes both alien space ship and gorgeous slot canyon. The New Concert Hall is on a gorgeous plaza downtown and across the street from easily the largest fountain show we have ever seen. It is easy to see why Harbin is nicknamed the "music city" when you see the incredible structures they have built for their audiences and musicians. Harbin is a titanic experiment in pre-emptive building. On the drive between airport and Conservatory one can see thousands of high rise apartment buildings emerging in clusters throughout the landscape. But based on the total darkness at night, many of these buildings seem to have no occupants.
Prizes aside, the best part about the Schoenfeld Competition was the cohort of student volunteers from the local University. Many of these students are English majors, though most have never left China. They say China makes it difficult to leave, even for a semester abroad. One would think it's in China's best interest to help their students learn English as fast as possible to meet the growing Global Corporate presence in China. Language barriers and delayed emails led to numerous miscommunications, but the volunteers were always there to help. Interacting with the volunteers was an incredible look into the Cultural differences between China and the United States. In addition to never leaving China, some have never had a sip of alcohol, a shot of espresso, or a night of dancing. The young folks are extremely focused on the study-job-spouse-child sequence. Whenever we got in a taxi with a volunteer, they would chat with the driver for the entire ride. We became close friends with two of the volunteers, Cathy and Lena, who went way above and beyond in helping us to have a good time. We would have been lost without them as most of Harbin speaks no English. They accompanied us to restaurants and banks, and escorted us downtown for sightseeing. We couldn't find electrolyte-rich gatorade when Kevin got rocked by food poisoning, and it was hard to even communicate to the volunteers what we were looking for. But they figured it out, went to the store, and hand delivered the goods to Kevin's dorm.
I often ask myself, what do chamber music competitions have to do with our mission to expand the audience and repertoire for contemporary string quartet music? Are competitions a seductive distraction from the grind of fundraising for commissions, directing and marketing projects, performing challenging new works for tiny audiences?
Competing in traditional competitions has several important benefits to our mission. If we can play new music better, people are more likely to be moved by it. Improving our chops as a quartet will increase our communicative abilities when we tackle new repertoire. And if we establish ourselves in the chamber music scene as a great quartet, more audiences will pay attention when we release an album of works we commissioned. In the end our goal is still to promote great new music. Then there is the financial reality of a young ensemble that specializes in new music. Ensembles are lucky to break even, let alone throw together a living wage. Summers are especially rough, as most income earning activities come to a halt. To win a prize at an International Competition is to find water in the desert.
This fall we plan to complete our debut full-length album of new commissions and unrecorded recent works, self-present two projects filled with world premieres, premiere the Chamber Music America supported Andy Akiho Piano Quintet with Jenny Q Chai throughout California, and begin rehearsing for our full-length album of recent string quartets by Common Sense Composer Collective. All of these projects will come to life more vividly because we sweat our asses off in China preparing for the Schoenfeld Competition (I almost never wore a shirt in rehearsal and I apologize to Otis, Kevin and Taija).
Watch our prize winning performance of movements by Haydn, Britten and Ravel here.