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Reflections on a performance experience in China
by Lori Howard for Vocal Area Network
Posted August 31, 2008

New Jersey Choral Society in ChinaEarly this summer, members of the New Jersey Choral Society and Connecticut Choral Society, joined by fellow singers, friends and family, traveled to China to participate in the Concerts of International Friendship and Goodwill: Perform in Harmony -- with Olympic Spirit, in celebration of the upcoming Olympic Games. The buildings of the Olympic Village were barely visible within the low-lying smog of Beijing, but the growing anticipation was obvious in the busy preparations for the Games. Now that the Olympic torch has been extinguished, looking back provides a special thrill that we were part of this extraordinary summer in China.

The 10-day cultural and performance tour brought 452 North American singers from 11 choirs together with Chinese musicians on a grand scale. These performances concluded a series of 20 concerts produced in China by Kingsway International, a Colorado-based company, comprised of 65 performance groups and 3500 participants. In the words of Barbara Zigli, Cultural Affairs Officer with the US Embassy in China, who was a guest speaker at the concert in Beijing, "This [collaboration] builds mutual respect and friendship, which form the foundation for peace and understanding." The festival was led by Eric Dale Knapp, artistic director and conductor for NJCS and CCS, and the choirs were joined by the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra for both events. The July 3 concert, an official event of the Beijing Olympic Cultural Arts Festival held at the Beijing Forbidden City Concert Hall, also featured the Youth Choir of the Tianjin Conservatory.

Maestro Knapp masterfully constructed the programs to emphasize the spirit of the Chinese nation, as well as the Olympic ideal displayed in the motto of the 2008 Olympic Games, "One World, One Dream." The programs provided a splendid sound track for the drama of the Olympics. All but one of the opening works of the Beijing Olympic Tribute concert were written by American composers specifically for various Olympic Games. The recurring thematic element of these works was best stated in the final stanza of Leonard Bernstein's Olympic Hymn: "May anthems played to show the victories won by every state sing too of concord and harmony, and show the world what it might be."

The concert continued with the Yellow River Cantata, a work based on a patriotic poem written in the late 1930s to lift the spirits of the Chinese during the war against Japan. The piano concerto adaptation of the movement Ode to the Yellow River was stunningly performed by Linda Sweetman-Waters, accompanied by the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra. The podium was then assumed by Yang Li, Tianjin Orchestra director, to conduct the other movements, starting with Defend the Yellow River, a political and compositional tour de force, which has thematic elements of patriotism and revolution. Performed in Mandarin at a rapid tempo, the North American choirs' voices resounding from the balcony, combined with the Chinese choir on stage, caught the audience by surprise. Their immediate reaction was one of delight and amazement, as they clapped and cheered along with this familiar and famous song. The emotion emanating from the exuberant crowd brought many choir members to tears. The final movement, Shout Aloud, Yellow River, was performed by the Conservatory choir alone, highlighting the glistening clarity of their youthful voices.

The July 6 concert at the spectacular Shanghai Oriental Arts Center opened with Craig Phillips' Suite for Organ, Brass and Percussion, which featured an exciting performance by New Jersey organist Mark Pacoe. Once again, the festival chorus and orchestra enthralled the audience under the batons of Maestros Eric Knapp and Yang Li. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony concluded the performances. The choral finale, set to Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy, was an apt finish to a concert resplendent in unity and harmony with its closing line, a "kiss for all the world." Artistic Director Knapp was thrilled with the outcome of the programs he and Kingsway created. In his words, "Perform in Harmony with Olympic Spirit was a true celebration of music and culture. Performing Beethoven's iconic Ninth Symphony was an experience of a lifetime and heralded the spirit the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The singers sang like angels and the audiences were ecstatic."

Between rehearsals and concerts, the singers got a chance to visit some of the wonderful sights in and around China's major cities, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Shanghai's architecturally famous Bund and Pudong districts. The singers returned home with the sense that they had been a part of a very special cultural and social, as well as musical, journey.

Lori Howard is Vice President, Communications for the New Jersey Choral Society.

Content Contact: Lori Howard.
Revision Date: August 31, 2008.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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