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Anticipation builds

In the proud tradition of the Peace Corps and groundbreaking cultural exchange programs around the world, the University of Michigan embarks on a bold initiative to China with the hope of reigniting an international discussion about the pressing need for people-to-people diplomacy.

For three weeks in May, ninety-seven students, faculty and staff will travel to the Far East, where the University Symphony Band will perform.

For a list of stories about the China trip, please visit


The repertoire of contemporary compositions, includes new works by acclaimed U-M faculty members William Bocom, Michael Daugherty, Bright Sheng and Kristin Kuster. A graduate of U-M, Xiang Gao, a native of China, a violinist cited by The New York Times as a “rare and soulful virtuoso,” will be a featured performer on the tour.

A (free) kick-off tour concert was performed Thursday at Hill Auditorium.  On Sunday, the tour begins in Hangzhou. During the next three weeks, the tour stops in Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenyang, Beijing and Tianjin, before traveling back to the U.S. for a “welcome home” concert in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 29. The LA concert is presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“This tour speaks to the need for global cultural education,” said Lester Monts (below right), senior vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. “As the university developed its China Initiative, we found we had a strong connection with China in the fields of engineering and science. From there, we sought to deepen our relationship with the culture and Chinese people.”

In fall of 2009, said Monts, U-M launched the Confucius Institute as a way to build deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese arts. “And now, this tour puts us on the arts map in China,” he said.

The trip to the Far East, however, is more than performing and testing the tenets of music as a universal language. Coming amid a growing openness in China and a time of great uncertainty in the Arab countries in the Middle East, the tour is a stark reminder of the need for cultural exchange programs as well as the latest chapter in the university’s long legacy of being in the forefront of promoting culture as a way to deepen understanding among people.

During her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in early March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for doubling or tripling of funding for student exchange programs. Her comments were in response to Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), who clamed international exchange programs are critical components of U.S. public diplomacy.

Fifty years ago during the depths of the Cold War, the U-M Symphony Band became the second symphony after the Leonard Bernstein-led New York Philharmonic to tour the Soviet Union. That tour during strained relations between the super powers was a “people-to-people mission” sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

A U-M alumni and member of the 1961 tour of the Soviet Union, Jack Kripl reflected: “I was led to believe that the Russians were cold-hearted… standing firm behind the Iron Curtain. I found out firsthand that quite the opposite was true.”

While the electronic age seemingly makes the world a much smaller place in comparison to Iron Curtain days of the early 1960s, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction with people of another culture.

“It’s often the arts alone that are capable of building bridges,” said Christopher Kendall (below right), dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “To take a great repertoire and offer it to people in China in a very different cultural and political environment is simply a profound educational opportunity for students.”

In between Hangzhou and LA will be daily opportunities for cross-culture conversation among U-M students, faculty and staff and their Chinese hosts, conversations that will take place amid a country of a state-controlled media and ancient culture.

“This tour makes a statement about who we are today, as a university and as a music school,” said Michael Haithcock (below right), conductor of the University Symphony Band. “It gives us a chance to reach out and understand what truly about music is universal. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to be a musician and world citizen combined in the same experience.”

In 2005, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman led the first of many university delegations to China. At the time, Coleman observed: “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.”

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NOTE: Montage home page image — Shanghai Theater.