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NSO Tour: Beijing, Days 3-6

Edited to add: In today's Washington Post: Mao and Again, by Anne Midgette.

Beijing is too huge to begin to grasp in a few days. Distances that look small on the map are, in fact, tremendous. The hotel where the National Symphony Orchestra was staying, built for the Olympics, is brand-new and far north of the center of town, on the way to the stadium. All of Beijing appears to have been built for the Olympics. The streets are still continually being widened, old-time charm replaced with wide boulevards, modern landscaping and shiny office blocks.

The Central Conservatory has just erected a new tower of classrooms and practice rooms, completed a matter of weeks ago. But when Daniel Foster, the NSO's principal violist, gave a master class on Friday it was in one of the old buildings, where a list of the prominent Western artists who have come to teach takes up a whole wall in the lobby. The students varied in quality: a boy played Brahms with a gorgeous lyrical tone, a girl scraped her way energetically through Bach. Foster helped clean up her act. “It’s just like giving a master class anywhere,” he said.

"The Egg," a.k.a. Grand National Theater.

It seems that only foreigners refer to the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA), the sleek new complex where the NSO performed, as “the Egg.” When you get into a taxi, you ask for the “big national theater.” If you are at the theater, however, and trying to leave again, you will not find a taxi, because taxis are not allowed to stop on the big through road that runs by the building. You can spend hours in Beijing waiting for a taxi in the area immediately around the Big National Theater. Ask me how I know.
(read more after the jump)

Another signature building is “the Pants,” the CCTV tower designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. CCTV, the state television network, was supposed to move into this building this summer, but in February the adjacent Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a part of the complex, which was in the final stages of completion but as yet uninhabited, caught fire and completely burned up. Since the hotel and the CCTV tower share a foundation, it is evidently risky to dismantle the remains of the one without jeopardizing the other. Right now the sleek new tower and the burned-out shell of the hotel sit side by side, empty.

After two concerts, the NSO members hit Beijing full force on their free day on Saturday. There was much purchasing of silk, much eating of Peking duck, some viewing of Chinese acrobats, a number of massages at the hotel. And what seemed like half the orchestra had clothes made by local tailors. The prices were so cheap – $15 for a shirt – that the men, in particular, went a little nuts, ordering sets of tails and tuxedo shirts and suits as if they were planning to open a store back home. (Even Ivan Fischer, the conductor, got three suits.)

The day off marked the halfway point of the trip. When the NSO marshaled for departure for Xi’an early Sunday morning, many of them carrying new garment bags, there was a sense that travel fatigue was starting to set in. “I’m ready to go home,” one player said.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 15, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , international  
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