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A journey east

By Betsy Goolian

Nearly a half-century ago, the University Symphony Band, under William D. Revelli, mounted a tour to the Soviet Union—only the second symphony after the New York Philharmonic allowed behind the Iron Curtain. It was a people-to-people mission, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, aimed at winning hearts and minds during a time of especially tense relations between the two cold war super powers.

That winning of hearts and minds, it appears, worked both ways. Jack Kripl of the 1961 tour wrote, “I was led to believe that the Russians were cold-hearted, staunch members of the Stalinist regime, devoid of feelings, all standing firm behind the Iron Curtain. I found out firsthand that quite the opposite was true.”

Now, fifty years later, Michael Haithcock, Director of Bands, and his University Symphony Band are heading to China:  Hangzhou, Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenyang, Beijing and Tianjin. In May 2011, 80 SMTD musicians will depart for three weeks in China, touching down in Los Angeles for a grand finale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 29.

A pre-tour delegation, led by Vice Provost Lester Monts (right), paved the way for this singular opportunity, a perfect complement to a U-M movement alreadyunderway. University President Mary Sue Coleman led a delegation to China in 2005, the first of many, saying, “Never in the history of the world has a nation seen the rise of so many people—hundreds of millions—into the middle class, as citizens move from the countryside to the cities. With its remarkable economic transformation come great challenges in education, sustainability, employment, social and political change—indeed, the major global problems of the 21st century are exemplified in many ways in China.”

The pace of the tour will be full tilt, with massive geography to cover while still building in time for siteseeing. Student players will have the thrill of performing at the fabulous National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, the aptly named ‘egg’ (see Muse cover). In Shanghai, it will be the Grand Theatre, another architectural marvel.

The tour will proceed, with performances at conservatories and concert halls along the way. Students will meet face-to-face with their peers, college-age Chinese musicians, to exchange ideas through the medium of music.

One alumna from the 1961 tour wrote, “If I had it to do over again, I would do more homework beforehand.” That won’t be a problem this time. Not only is the world smaller in the 21st century, but tour participants will take ten sessions on Chinese language, history, culture, music, and geography.

The China tour is an extraordinary opportunity for the School to showcase works by SMTD composers William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster (right), and Bright Sheng. Kuster’s work will feature violinist Xiang Gao (BM ’96, MM ‘97), a native of China, a musician cited by The New York Times as a “rare and soulful virtuoso,” who will tour with the group.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, students will have a day to decompress before the final performance. While there, students will engage with young people through Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), LA Philharmonic director Gustavo Dudamel’s signature project, patterned on his native Venezuela’s el sistema.

“The 2011 China tour offers another generation of students the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Christopher Kendall (right), dean of SMTD. “To experience anotherculture firsthand, create lasting bonds with the people they meet, and demonstrate internationally the talent and caliber of the University of Michigan students and this remarkable ensemble.”

Betsy Goolian is a writer at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.