First Fortepiano Concerts in Beijing

November 1996
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Pieter Wispelwey & Florilegium program,
Beijing Concert Hall
November 26, 1996

Just off the plane from Beijing and catching up on four days of office work, so here is a little report on the first fortepiano appearances in China.

Thanks to the British Council, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, and the Beijing Performing Arts and Culture Company, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey played two Haydn concertos accompanied by twelve players of Florilegium from London. Neal Peres Da Costa led from the Fortepiano. The ensemble works on the program included an Arne Overture, a JC Bach Quintet, and a Storace Sextet, so there was quite an amount of obbligato keyboard to be heard.

The first concert was held in an old hall at Beijing University on Monday night, November 25. This charming venue is often used for concerts, no doubt because the wooden structure and high stage give good sound from all points. It was absolutely packed by students and staff who were extraordinarily attentive and most appreciative, storming the stage after the flowers were handed out at the end of the performance. (Previous concerts I’ve been at in China have revealed the most authentic audience practice I’ve seen anywhere—eating, drinking, smoking, loud talking, in complete oblivion to the musicians.)

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Pieter Wispelwey & Florilegium rehearsal on stage

The main public concert (same program) was in the dry acoustic of the 1200-seat Beijing Concert Hall on Tuesday night, in the presence of both the British Ambassador and various other officials, as well as representatives from the Netherlands Embassy. The hall would have been over two-thirds full in my estimation, with very few expats. The audience was sparing and polite in its applause, often leaving the musicians with a little silence prior to their entry bows. It was, however, tumultuous at the end and Pieter obliged with an unaccompanied Bach movement for an encore, despite the yawns and clock watching by two local dignitaries in the VIP row. (These two gentlemen would only have a brief respite from their loud conversation throughout whenever either myself, or one of the Dutch officers, would lean forward and give a gentle glare.)

As the audience departed, the musicians lined the front of the stage while the official party strode past, and the Ambassador and his wife were introduced to each person while an army officer hurriedly flipped each seat up in the front of the hall—I don’t think it was his lunch he was looking for. Fortunately, no bombs were found.

The fortepiano traveled and behaved exceptionally well after the journey via Seoul in its sarcophagus, despite temperatures near zero in Beijing. I have a few modifications to make to my flightcase, including a proper cradle for the recording thermohygrograph so it doesn’t dislodge itself when the box is dropped on one corner and stomped on. This will have to wait until next week, when the piano will arrive via Bangkok.

In all, a most pleasant time was had by the group, and there was much Christmas shopping done. We all went to the Forbidden City, and most took the trip to climb the Great Wall. The food was excellent and plentiful, and at the time of me writing this (November 28), the brass players are about to take off from Beijing for London, probably still recovering from the 65% alcoholic beverage from the bottle with the snake in it.

Carey Beebe

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Great Wall of China at Ba Da Ling

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