Five cities, 100 trav­el­ers

A choir goes to China and greets its tri­als with song

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ME­LANIE D. G. KA­PLAN

When Steve Ca­panna trav­els, he drinks tap wa­ter in coun­tries where he knows it to be safe. But on a re­cent trip to China, where tap wa­ter is un­drink­able, Ca­panna re­sorted to bot­tled wa­ter and felt a twinge of re­morse not only be­cause of the three plas­tic bot­tles he con­sumed daily but also be­cause of the hun­dreds con­sumed ev­ery day by his com­pan­ions. He was tour­ing with the Choral Arts So­ci­ety of Washington, and this was but one of the large-scale nui­sances of group travel.

“As some­one who works on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, this was a nag­ging source of guilt for me,” said the tenor, who works for the Depart­ment of Energy. The so­lu­tion for him and oth­ers, he joked, was sub­sti­tut­ing Ts­ing­tao beer when­ever pos­si­ble.

If you’ve ever been ex­as­per­ated by ral­ly­ing and shep­herd­ing friends or fam­ily for early flights or late per­for­mances in dis­tant lands, con­sider try­ing it with a group of 100. In May, Choral Arts mem­bers flew from Washington to China for a five-city, two-week tour called “Two Coun­tries One Stage.” The singers joined the 100-per­son Qing­dao Sym­phony Or­ches­tra in per­form­ing Carl Orff ’s “Carmina Bu­rana” and reach­ing a to­tal of 10,000 Chi­nese arts pa­trons.

The choir, now in its 50th sea­son, had trav­eled in­ter­na­tion­ally be­fore, but this was its first Asian tour. The group was in­vited by China’s Min­istry of Cul­ture af­ter it per­formed “Porgy and Bess” with the Qing­dao Sym­phony on its 2009 U.S. tour. Upon learn­ing of the in­vi­ta­tion, some cho­ris­ters im­me­di­ately voiced con­cerns about China’s air qual­ity; oth­ers were wor­ried about In­ter­net ac­cess, traf­fic, long lines and crowds.

“It’s a coun­try that— when­ever we read about it— is not nec­es­sar­ily couched in the pos­i­tive,” said Anne Keiser, a first alto and free­lance travel pho­tog­ra­pher who has sung with the choir for 40 years. “Whether

it’s pol­i­tics, pol­lu­tion, Tianan­men Square, hack­ing — these are the things that first come to mind.”

Keiser and some of her fel­low cho­ris­ters also cringed at the idea of group travel. But the de­sire to ex­plore the cul­ture and col­lab­o­rate ar­tis­ti­cally with a Chi­nese or­ches­tra in some of the coun­try’s most im­pres­sive con­cert halls trumped any wor­ries about what mostly amounted to in­con­ve­niences.

“When you’re trav­el­ing as a group, it’s an in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence within a group con­text, within cul­tural diplo­macy,” said Choral Arts Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor De­bra Kraft. “We were com­mu­ni­cat­ing through mu­sic, and when you can share that ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s an in­cred­i­ble high.”

The chal­lenge

What’s in­volved in co­or­di­nat­ing travel for 100 — plus an ad­di­tional 20 staff, fam­ily and friends?

Ken Grundy is a group travel ex­pert with a cou­ple dozen China vis­its un­der his belt, but this job was un­usual for him. When his Liver­pool, Eng­land-based com­pany, Mae­stro Tour Man­age­ment, plans trips for per­form­ing artists, most of them are pro­fes­sion­als, such as the Lon­don Phil­har­monic or the Bol­shoi Bal­let. Choral Arts, how­ever, is an un­salaried, vol­un­teer choir. Each singer paid his or her own way — about $4,000 a per­son, which in­cluded flights, in-coun­try trans­porta­tion, 13 ho­tel nights, daily break­fast, four lunches and three din­ners.

“You have a group of tal­ented mu­si­cians who also have full-time jobs and who have funded them­selves to have not only a won­der­ful con­cert tour but also a touris­tic ex­pe­ri­ence,” Grundy said. “The chal­lenge was to in­clude as much as we pos­si­bly could.” Hav­ing worked with Choral Arts be­fore, he knew mem­bers were en­thu­si­as­tic about new ex­pe­ri­ences. Salaried per­form­ers, in con­trast, “just want to get to their ho­tels and rest, and hav­ing to do any­thing or­ga­nized dur­ing their down­time just ap­palls them,” he said.

Grundy joined Kraft in May 2014 for a two-week scout­ing trip. At the time, the sky was yel­low with pol­lu­tion, lead­ing them to make con­tin­gency plans in case the singers needed to move some ac­tiv­i­ties in­side. Kraft vis­ited con­cert halls; she also tested the pools and fit­ness fa­cil­i­ties in each ho­tel as an in­di­ca­tor of gen­eral clean­li­ness. She ended up book­ing chiefly with Hy­att, which of­fered an af­ford­able rate, an ac­com­mo­dat­ing li­ai­son for most of their city stops and colos­sal break­fasts with of­fer­ings from raw fish to scones and mar­malade.

The tour kicked off May 17 at the Kennedy Cen­ter with a sold­out per­for­mance of “Carmina Bu­rana.” Later that week, the group be­gan its jour­ney to Qing­dao, Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The trav­el­ers ranged in age from early 20s to late 70s, and each had com­pleted a ques­tion­naire with di­etary re­stric­tions and air­line seat­ing re­quests. Staff dis­trib­uted itin­er­ar­ies, which in­cluded de­tails such as “Set watches for­ward 12 hours,” notes on when their coach would make pit stops (and whether the toi­lets were Western- or Chi­nese-style) and re­minders to keep pass­ports in hand bag­gage.

Be­tween re­hearsals and per­for­mances were fam­ily-style meals (with veg­e­tar­ian and gluten-free ta­bles), walk­ing tours (in groups of 25) and vis­its to at­trac­tions such as the For­bid­den City, Tianan­men Square and Hong Kong’s Stan­ley Mar­ket. Ski lifts and ca­ble cars took par­tici-

Cho­ris­ters didn’t com­plain; rather, they did what they do best. “When the go­ing got rough,” the choir’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor said, “they broke into song.”

pants up the Great Wall for stun­ning views, and a num­ber of cho­ris­ters couldn’t pass up the op­por­tu­nity to take a to bog­gan like ride down.

Be­tween Chi­nese cities, most group trans­porta­tion was by tour bus or bullet train — a spot­lessly clean and ef­fi­cient sys­tem that made Wash­ing­to­ni­ans re­con­sider their fond­ness for Acela. This avoided po­ten­tial air­port de­lays and has­sles and al­lowed trav­el­ers to see the coun­try­side, but it pre­sented a another quandary: The trains aren’t equipped to store lug­gage. So Grundy hired a sealed Chi­nese postal truck to trans­port bags. The trucks needed 30 hours to make the trip, ver­sus five for the train — and they had to reach each des­ti­na­tion be­fore the start of the city’s truck cur­few (es­tab­lished to re­duce traf­fic in the busy cities), so par­tic­i­pants could re­claim their bags. The train fare in­cluded snack bags with what looked liked dried pineap­ple but turned out to be shred­ded cut­tle­fish.

Plan­ners and par­tic­i­pants alike ex­pected hic­cups along the way. Although the air qual­ity was bet­ter than pre­dicted, the traf­fic wasn’t: The ho­tel in Bei­jing was just two-thirds of a mile from the China Na­tional Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, but it took 24 min­utes for the cho­ris­ters’ bus to get there. Then, the bus couldn’t pull up to the stage door, so ev­ery­one had to walk in what Kraft de­scribed as in­cred­i­ble heat, wear­ing long black dresses and tuxe­dos. In another city, they dis­cov­ered that the room where they rested be­fore their per­for­mance be­gan — hy­drat­ing and breath­ing in sup­pos­edly clean air — was also used by the or­ches­tra for smoke breaks.

A sig­na­ture way to add lev­ity

But cho­ris­ters have more mem­o­ries of de­light than frus­tra­tion. In a Shang­hai park, they ran into a gath­er­ing of el­derly lo­cals prac­tic­ing their own singing. De­spite lan­guage bar­ri­ers, an im­promptu con­cert en­sued, cli­max­ing with a dual-lan­guage ver­sion of “Jin­gle Bells.” At a farewell din­ner, the cho­rus sang a thank-you song to the host or­ches­tra, with lyrics writ­ten to part of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Dur­ing the trip, Kraft said, cho­ris­ters didn’t com­plain; rather, they did what they do best. “When the go­ing got rough,” she said, “they broke into song.”

Glen Howard, a tenor and re­tired gen­eral coun­sel, said he had some trep­i­da­tion about a group trip and even bet a fel­low singer as to who would ex­plode first. “We ques­tioned whether tour rage would get the best of us,” Howard said. But in the end, “the mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence and cul­tural diplo­macy was so great, it out­weighed the chal­lenges of trav­el­ing with 100 peo­ple.”

Howard cel­e­brated his 65th birth­day in Bei­jing with Pek­ing duck and a small group from the choir, and on his birth­day eve, a larger group sang to him in the ho­tel lobby, and another group ser­e­naded him on the bus. “When you’re get­ting ‘Happy Birth­day’ in about 35-part har­mony,” he said, “it’s pretty glo­ri­ous.”

Some par­tic­i­pants, es­pe­cially the self-de­scribed in­tro­verts, made an ef­fort to break off from the group to recharge their bat­ter­ies. They’d take the sub­way or Uber to in­ex­pen­sive al­ley restau­rants where they found them­selves the only Cau­casians, com­mu­ni­cat­ing with servers us­ing the trans­la­tion app on their smart­phones.

The real magic, how­ever, oc­curred around the per­for­mances. Grundy said that a decade ago, per­form­ing arts au­di­ences in China were all ex­pa­tri­ates. Five years ago, Chi­nese would talk on their mo­bile phones dur­ing shows. To­day, he said, that’s changed. On this tour, the largely Chi­nese au­di­ences showed such ad­mi­ra­tion for per­form­ers that at each venue, they ap­plauded vig­or­ously dur­ing the en­tire five min­utes cho­ris­ters filed on­stage (done with­out cer­e­mony at home).

Each show ended with thun­der­ous ap­plause, and when the singers ex­ited the stage af­ter the fi­nal show, they lined up on both sides of the back­stage hall­way, cheer­ing and high-fiv­ing the mem­bers of the or­ches­tra as they left the build­ing.

“We all shared an art form, and we all found ways to ap­pre­ci­ate each other,” Keiser said. “Even though we didn’t speak the same lan­guage, an enor­mous amount of com­mu­ni­ca­tion took place.”

Clock­wise, from top left: A cou­ple waits for a taxi on a rainy night in Bei­jing; Chi­nese and for­eign tourists view the skyline of Pudong, Shang­hai’s fi­nan­cial cen­ter, from the iconic river­front the Bund; a sec­tion of the GreatWall in Bei­jing; work­ers

pre­pare a tra­di­tional junk ahead of a tourist cruise in Hong Kong’s Vic­to­ria Har­bour.



The Choral Arts So­ci­ety ofWash­ing­ton and staff at the Qing­dao Grand Theatre in China. The vol­un­teer choir of 100, whose mem­bers range in age from 20s to 70s, made stops there, Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Guangzhou and in Hong Kong, be­low. Each singer paid his own way.


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