On a 2019 concert tour of Inner Mongolia with the American Festival Orchestra, many of us players were amazed that no one in the various Chinese cities we visited seemed to speak or understand English. Cellphone translation apps helped with communication, but we all resorted to pantomiming when interacting with people in the shops.
When explaining why we were in China, I became quite adept at describing an orchestra by playing air violin, air cello, air flute and air clarinet — since fingering an imaginary keyboard didn’t seem to bring any understanding.
One morning while trying to find an opportunity to practice, I stumbled on a music store. I touched my watch hand to request some minutes on their grand piano, which I indicated by pointing. I also requested a metronome and mimed the tic-toc mechanism. A wind up metronome appeared in short order, and I practiced. When finished, I thanked the sales clerk with gestures and asked the price of the metronome while indicating that I wanted to buy a smaller model. The clerk seemed to grasp the meaning of my charades, and he returned with his cellphone. The translation he printed out for me read, “If you want to purchase a piano we can make shipping arrangements.” I guess my gestures weren’t as clear as I thought.
However, our concerts bridged all language barriers. During the first two state-mandated Chinese pieces, the audiences seemed to fidget and talk. But then, as our concertmaster stepped to the stage to begin the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” a hush settled over the audience. They remained attentive until the last tone died away and then erupted into excited applause — every night the same. During the rousing marches on the second half the audience clapped in time, and following the encores the people waved at us as groups surged to the stage, thanking us and taking pictures of their children standing with orchestra members.
A colleague reported to me that during one of the intermissions a lady walked backstage and thanked her in Chinese for coming to China. This violinist had studied Chinese and understood this lady’s words: “God brought you to us this evening.” With our music we were able to communicate friendship, joy and hope without words: fitting gifts for the Christmas season.
• Anne Schilperoort is principal keyboard for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. She and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more about the symphony at www.ysomusic.org.