Director of Orchestras and Graduate Studies Robert Baldwin receives a 3-year honorary appointment to Wuhan University.

February 15 2019

By guest blogger Robert Baldwin.

I was fortunate to make my second trip to China recently. For this trip, I had been invited to conduct a New Year’s Concert at Wuhan University where recent University of Utah School of Music graduate DMA graduate, Bo Wu has just started a new position as Director of Orchestras. Wuhan University is a major University in China, academically quite similar to the University of Utah. It’s a beautiful campus and a top ten university in China, set on a mountainside between the East Lake and the Yangtze River. It is also in the middle of a bustling metropolis of 10.6 million people.

Other than the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin, much of the trip seemed like my normal days at the U; 2-rehearsal-days with-2-different-orchestras. In addition to the orchestra at Wuhan University, I was also invited to conduct the Wuhan Conservatory Orchestra in rehearsal. The Conservatory is one of the top music schools in China, yet at orchestra rehearsals you find students and faculty sitting side-by-side, preparing music together. This makes for a unique learning situation, with faculty modelling directly for the students. We had a great time exploring Strauss’s Die Fledermaus Overture, Smetana’s The Moldau and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. The orchestra was comparable to our excellent Utah Philharmonia orchestra.

By contrast, the Wuhan University Orchestra was quite a bit like our University of Utah Campus Symphony, made up of mostly non-music majors. Wuhan University does not have a music major, per se, but students either play as specialists (those on scholarship), or as “hobby students.” We had a wide range of music to prepare in just 4 rehearsals: Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Verdi, Strauss, Jr. and Sr., and a Chinese song with soloist, chorus and orchestra that I sight read at the first rehearsal. That last one was certainly a new experience. But like the warm taro root tea I also experienced for the first time that day, it was unexpectedly fulfilling. I’m not sure I’ve ever before experienced a piece where there was a cultural connection to every single musician sitting in the orchestra.

Besides the music, which kept me very busy, I enjoyed a variety of other cultural experiences. Most memorably, I was fortunate to spent 3 hours with a traditional Chinese tea master. He prepared some very rare teas to sample, and was very interested in my opinion and reflections. I was honored that said he learned a new way to describe a tea from his home province due to my description. We talked about tea, history, life, philosophy and spirituality. We understood a common language without the need to understand many of each other’s words. Travel increases appreciation of not only another’s culture – history, customs, food, and arts – but also hammers home the idea that we are all essentially the same, with the same needs and desires despite our cultural constraints and customs.

China also provided many opportunities for resetting my “reality button.” At the dress rehearsal, we discovered that the piano has no wheels. I watched as the orchestra members muscled the instrument into place, then set up their own chairs and stands. All this in a space where it was 35 degrees (Fahrenheit) onstage. Yet no one is complained. It was their reality. Parkas were worn, warm tea was served and we persevered to play an excellent rehearsal. Still the cold inspired me to write a short haiku (wrong culture, I know, but humor me):

China in winter,
Rooms heated only while used.
Cold reality.

The concert on December 31st was a just tad warmer, maybe 45 degrees. But despite the chill, it proved a most memorable night. All 1200 people stayed to ring in the New Year with music. Included in the audience was the entire the upper administrators of the university. Amusingly, the photo session afterwards lasted about 30 minutes. I think I appeared on the Chinese version of Facebook about 1000 times if the request for pictures after the concert was any indication. It was quite different end of a concert in the USA where everybody just goes home. Every member of the orchestra wanted a picture, as did the official “Party rep” (if you catch my drift).

On my last day in Wuhan I was pleased to receive a 3-year honorary appointment to Wuhan University. (Translate “adjunct” as “guest professor”). This means I will be returning to Wuhan in the future for concerts and lectures. More importantly, this was a trip about new possibilities. I also met with the Dean other administrators and faculty of the Arts Education Center at Wuhan University to discuss visits between Wuhan U and the University of Utah, both for students and faculty. I also have an invitation to return for a concert at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music.

I found the basic rule of thumb in China is figuring out how to navigate edges of the system while remaining within the boundaries. That’s how things got done. I saw much of that from driving in the city to adjusting concert programming. American things are valued greatly, from electronics to pop culture to fast food. Regarding politics, it is not discussed much, but when it is, there indeed is a glance around the room for a surveillance camera. Our current president gets barely a mention except an occasional laugh about his “golden towers.” I actually enjoyed the brief respite from the 24-7 onslaught of U.S. news coverage The people I met love America and want to travel there. They love Disneyland, Marvel movies, KFC, and think you can drive from Los Angeles to Chicago in an afternoon. I loved their enthusiasm for the USA. I am well aware that my biases and questions must have been as obviously surprising to them as theirs were sometimes to me

My work at the University of Utah affords me some great travel opportunities. But make no mistake, I spent most of this trip working. Good work can and does occur anywhere and everywhere (and now, in any temperature for me). This trip, my second to China, and third to Asia in the last 2 years), was equal parts satisfying, challenging, engaging, overwhelming, fun, stimulating, and exhausting. All travel changes us. I am fortunate to be traveling at a relatively easy time in history, and to be able to share both the experience with you while I shared the music with new friends, students and colleagues.