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U-M student-musicians tapped for historic performances

By Betsy Goolian

Eighty University of Michigan student-musicians have been selected as members of the University Symphony Band that will perform during a tour of China in May. Auditions were held in late October, and students were recently notified of the selections. The students will perform under the guidance of Michael Haithcock. The University Symphony Band is widely considered a leader of the modern American wind band movement and one of the most outstanding ensembles of its kind.

“Our normal auditions create a ranking order, built by the panel of judges,” said Haithcock, director of bands and conductor of the Symphony Band. “By contrast, the China audition was an in-or-out situation. As in all auditions, we look for a consistently beautiful tone that can be easily blended with others of the like instrument, but also blended into the entire texture of the band as a whole,” he said.

“Of course we expect to hear all notes and rhythm issues played correctly, but beyond that we expect to hear a feeling of control and ownership that arises out of detailed preparation and cultivated musicianship,” said Haithcock. “The players selected for the tour were those who came the closest to matching this ideal.”

To read the first story in the China Tour series, please go to A JOURNEY EAST

Most of the 80 student-musicians will travel with their own instruments. Harps, double basses, and some percussion instruments will be rented in China. The Symphony Band will perform eleven concerts in all, starting in the weeks before they leave Ann Arbor continuing through the Shanghai Grand Theatre (photo above), and then to the grand finale in Los Angeles at tour’s end:  a Bon Voyage concert in Ann Arbor on May 5, nine concerts throughout China, and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on May 29.

UM-China Cultural Parntership

Hanban, the Chinese Language Council International, is generously supporting major portions of the tour, as is the office of Provost Philip Hanlon at the University of Michigan. In 2009, Madame Xu Lin, Hanban’s director general, and Lester Monts, U-M senior vice provost and musicology professor, joined forces to establish a Confucius Institute at the University of Michigan.

One of some 300 such institutes now established around the globe, U-M’s is unique in its focus on the arts. The creation of a Confucius Institute at Michigan is anoutgrowth of partnerships already established by U-M when President Mary Sue Coleman (photo right) led her first delegation to China in 2005. Renmin University, in Beijing, is Michigan’s Confucius Institute’s cultural partner.

“The founding of the Confucius Institute will help us understand each other better,” said Chen Yulu, vice president for international affairs at Renmin University at a ceremony marking the opening of the Institute. “This will allow both of us to further promote cooperation and friendship.”

“The Michigan community gains enormous benefit from the many Chinese artistic treasures the Confucius Institute brings to the campus,” said Monts. “The Symphony Band’s tour to China provides the opportunity for the University to reciprocate by introducing Chinese audiences to the rich tradition of American wind band music. I cannot think of another American ensemble that represents this tradition so well.”

The creation of the Confucius Institute led to an ongoing, and growing, relationship with Hanban, whose help throughout the Symphony Band tour is—and will be—indispensable. “We could not have envisioned a tour of this magnitude without the overwhelming support of Madame Xu Lin at Hanban,” Monts said.

UM Students: Ambassadors to China

The China Eighty will arrive in Shanghai on May 8, 2011. Cultural immersion will have been mitigated somewhat by a 10-session course in Chinese culture, mandatory for all tour participants, running throughout winter semester. The curriculum will include basic language training, Chinese history, an introduction to Chinese musical instruments, art history, and, perhaps most importantly, cultural protocol or etiquette. These students are our ambassadors to China.

Three students from the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures will be taking the 10-session course as well. They have been assigned to video-document the tour, going behind the scenes, first in Ann Arbor as the Symphony Band rehearses and prepares for the trip, and then in China, following the itinerary. They will be under the direction of Tom Bray, faculty member in the School of Art & Design and staff at U-M’s Digital Media Commons. Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology, is traveling with the band as official historian.

After deplaning in Shanghai that first day, students will have time to recover from jet lag and absorb their new surroundings during a bus ride to Hangzhou, in southeast China, once described by Marco Polo as “the finest and most splendid city in the world.” That day will include a boat tour of Hangzhou’s spectacular West Lake. Then, after a day to rehearse, the SB will perform at Zhejian University in Hangzhou.

After Hangzhou, it’s back to Shanghai, by bus, for an evening concert the following night at the beautiful Shanghai Grand Theatre, an architectural marvel designed by French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier. It is there that students will first meet up with the U-M Alumni Association’s shadow tour, “Discovering China,” which will meet up with the band for two of its performances, in Shanghai and Beijing.

The next day, students board a flight for Xi’an for rehearsals for an evening performance at Xi’an Concert Hall. A day has been set aside for a visit to the Terra Cotta Army, a massive grave of funerary art dating from 210 BC, accidentally discovered by farmers in 1974. The army— some 8,000 life-sized soldiers with individually sculpted faces, standing in military formation, along with 130 chariots, 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses—was buried with China’s first emperor to protect him in the afterlife.

The next stop is Shenyang, in the Liaoning Province in northeast China. Rehearsals start up again for a performance the next night at Lioaning University and at Shenyang Normal University the following night. The Symphony Band’s performance will be part of Shenyang Normal University’s 60th anniversary celebration.

Then it’s back to Beijing, by plane, for what might be the pièce de resistance, a performance at the spectacular National Center for the Performing Arts, aptly nicknamed “the egg.” An elliptical dome of titanium and glass, the spectacular hall is surrounded by a man made lake. Members of the Alumni Association tour will be in the audience to cheer on these magnificent players. The evening will be capped off with a rousing performance of The Victors.

From Beijing, the band will take a day trip to nearby Tianjin and a performance at Tianjin Grand Theatre. The next day, it’s back to Beijing for a final performance at Renmin University. Five of the six cities visited by the Symphony Band—Beijing Shanghai, Xi’an, Shenyang, and Tianjin—are home to major music conservatories considered among China’s elite institutions for high-level musical training.

Final concert in LA

After a visit to the Great Wall—without which no tour would be complete—the University Symphony Band will bid adieu to China at a farewell dinner before boarding a plane the next morning for the long flight to Los Angeles. Tour planners have wisely scheduled a day of rest for the students, who will be free to collapse in their hotel rooms or explore the city.

The following day, band members will participate in outreach with young Los Angelinos involved in YOLA, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, LA Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel’s signature program, patterned after the very successful El Sistema in Venezuela that nurtured Dudamel himself.

The tour’s grand finale is on May 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall (photo below) in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.  A spectacular sight from the outside, its curved exterior sheathed in stainless steel, the hall was designed in architect Frank Gehry’s inimitable style. For concert tickets, please visit

By contrast, the concert hall inside is warmly dressed in wood, acoustically vibrant, a soaring space seating some 2,200. Following a special dinner with U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and before a reception on the hall’s third-level garden terrace, the University Symphony Band takes the stage for its final performance of the tour.

Of the 80 musicians selected to participate in the tour, Haithcock says, “My experience with students, across the School and the University, is that they understand the privilege of attending Michigan, the privilege of participating in opportunities unique to a great public institution. They understand that it is a privilege to have such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like the Symphony Band Tour of China.”

For more about the China tour, visit the School’s Web site at

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