Night at the Forbidden City Concert Hall
By Brenda Tremblay ~ Posted Fri, 07/18/2008 - 1:24pm
The Rochester Oratorio Society passed through the Empress's Gate to the Forbidden City in white diesel buses. Carrying black concert clothes and folders, members walked through a tunnel of ancient cypress trees and rock formations. Cicadas buzzed. Dragonflies hovered over the grass. Lilies lowered their heads, giving off a heady fragrance. Dreamlike. After passing through an ancient courtyard, we stepped over a beam that protects the Hall from evil spirits.
Inside, we walked onto a wide-planked, terraced stage, taking our places for a dress rehearsal. Behind us stood a mammoth pipe organ. On either side rose sand-colored marble columns.
We were about to perform in one of Beijing's largest concert venues.
First, we sang a warm-up, a series of ascending and descending notes. The sound bounced off the back of the hall and sailed back, luminous and clear. The acoustics were outstanding.
"This sounds like Carnegie Hall," our conductor Eric Townell said, grinning. He raked his hand through his hair.
We ran through some of the pieces, then broke formation to get into our concert clothes and grab some food.
When the performance began, we came out in five separate rows, bowing, turning on our heels, and ascending the oak terraces to our respective places. There was plenty of room on stage. The audience of about eight hundred people applauded when Eric walked out.
How do I describe this performance? Focused on the music, I at times forgot where we were singing. Beijing? The Forbidden City Concert Hall? Home to the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and China Philharmonic? It hardly seemed real.
We opened with a set of pieces by Randall Thompson, singing The Lord's Prayer and a portion of The Peaceable Kingdom. When we reached the part about "gladness of heart," I felt it, really FELT it. Epiphany. Gladness of heart.
Then we sang a portion of Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen. If you've been following my blog, you know this piece doesn't really speak to me. Sometimes I just sing the notes. But on this night, expansive and full of wonder, I loved even the Lauridsen.
Then we jumped into "Stomp Your Foot" by Aaron Copland, a choral hoedown. Audience members smiled and sat up a little.
We took a break.
The second half of the performance began with three German Romantic pieces. Here I sailed again, feeling the emotional force of Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 43. "Oh, my soul, why art thou cast downward? Hope in the Lord." I wish you could hear this richly-layered piece.
Eric launched into a portion of "Ode to Common Things" by Cary Ratcliff, with Cary himself playing the piano. Based on poems by Communist sympathizer Pablo Neruda, "Ode" speaks to the Chinese of sharing, brotherhood, and the power of love.
Finally, we sang two songs in Mandarin, beginning with "Kang Ding," a famous Chinese folk song about a lover and the moon bathing a city in light. Audience members started clapping in time. Then we performed "My Motherland" with soloist Ying Ying Liu, a Hong Kong resident who studied in Rochester at the Eastman School of Music. She sauntered out on stage, extended her arm, and held listeners in the palm of her hand by singing another nationalistic Chinese song, "My Motherland," written by her composer-father. Each time she reached the chorus, the audience joined in. Enthusiastically, we all sang the refrain together.
After it ended, we walked back out into the ancient courtyard. A full moon floated over the Forbidden City. I tried to take a picture. I wanted to hold it, suspend it.
I can hardly believe I've stood on a stage with my father and friends in Beijing and sung "The Lord's Prayer."
My cup runneth over.