A German Orchestra in the Middle Kingdom

On Friday, I saw the premiere of a documentary about a German orchestra’s tour of China and Japan.  The orchestra in question is the Heinrich-Heine-University Orchestra, a semi-professional ensemble made up of current and former students of the University, under the leadership of University Music Director Silke Loehr.  (Disclosure: I know several members of the orchestra).  After months of intense preparation, the Orchestra finally set out, in fall of 2005, to play six concerts in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Beijing.

Ordinarily, you would hire professional tour managers to move 74 people and $60,000 worth of musical instruments around big foreign countries.  The HHU Orchestra, though, doesn’t have fancy managers.  The orchestra members all have day jobs, and took time away from those jobs to organize the tour themselves.  They booked the hotels, planned the itinerary, and managed the customs and visa regulations themselves.  Nobody paid them a cent; and many used up most or all of their vacation days to make the trip.

Fortunately for us, the orchestra was accompanied by a team of young filmmakers from Duesseldorf’s Robert Schumann Conservatory (G).  The conservatory students are studying sound and image technology, and the resulting film is their doctoral dissertation.  And boy, does it look professional — the director, Aleksander Bach, seamlessly mixes interviews, jump-cut videos of pulsing, neon-drenched metropolises, cinéma vérité treks through the backstreets of Beijing, dramatic confrontations with defective hotel doors and defective Chinese customs officials (who unexpectedly demanded a huge security deposit to let the orchestra’s instruments through customs), and — of course — generous excerpts of the orchestra playing Wagner, Schumann, Bizet, and Beethoven.

The interviews build the heart of the film.  The orchestra players share their impressions of China (delicious food, disagreeable officials, startling gap between rich and poor) and Japan (very clean, and orderly — during rush hour, all you hear in the subways is thousands of footsteps).  Ms. Loehr talks about the joys and frustrations of communal music-making, and the mild shock of realizing that in a dictatorship, there is nobody to appeal to if a customs official decides they don’t fancy letting your instruments into the country.

The Chinese and Japanese audiences were warmly appreciative, especially when the orchestra members realized that, pursuant to Asian custom, they were expected to applaud the audience back.  The reaction of the Chinese audiences seemed to indicate that many of them had never seen a live orchestra before — much less an orchestra which lobbed scorching Teutonic missiles like Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture at them.  After one concert, a local official told the orchestra that their visit was so exciting that he, and several others, would likely have trouble going to sleep!  After another concert, a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls ran screaming onto the stage asking for autographs, taking pictures of themselves with orchestra members, and generally practically wetting themselves with delirious excitement.

How do I get this thoughtful, lively 1-hour documentary, you ask?  Just visit its website (G), where you can watch a trailer for the film and place an order.  It only costs 11 Euros. You watch a fine movie, and support young filmmakers and amateurs who play just for the love of the music to boot.  What could be finer?

P.S.  Warning: the documentary’s all in German.  Those of you who have senselessly resisted learning German until now should finally give in.  For the stubborn few who continue to resist, I’ll let you know if an English version comes out.

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