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Making Music and Memories in Beijing

Story by
Nancy Joseph

UWWE flutist Elizabeth Jolly (right) and her counterpart from the China Conservatory pose for a photo during a rehearsal for their side-by-side concert at the China Conservatory. Media credit: Zhao-Rong Chen

Ask members of the University of Washington Wind Ensemble (UWWE) about their recent tour in Beijing, China, and they will gladly share dozens of memorable moments. There was the enthusiastic audience at Tsinghua University that continued to applaud after the ensemble played two encores and had no more music to perform. And the impromptu performance alongside the renowned People’s Liberation Army Band, which had never before invited a student ensemble to perform with them. And the time spent with music students from the China Conservatory.

But ask the UW students—or UWWE conductor Tim Salzman, professor of music—about the most memorable moment of the tour, and nearly all will describe the ensemble’s final sold-out performance at Beijing’s stunning 2,200 seat National Center for the Performing Arts.

“The hall was absolutely gorgeous,” recalls saxophonist Melissa Winstanley (BA, Music; BS, Computer Science, 2012), a master’s student in computer science and 2012 UW President's Medalist. “I was in awe at being able to play in such a place. And finally, after all of our other performances, we came together as an ensemble and played our hearts out. When I saw Professor Salzman tearing up at the end of the Maslanka symphony, I knew that we had made him, our university, and our country proud.”

UWWE at China Conservatory

The UW Wind Ensemble performs at the China Conservatory. Media credit: Yuke Jing

Salzman has led three UW Wind Ensemble tours to Japan, but this was the ensemble’s first foray into China. UW alumnus Zhao-Rong Chen (DMA, 2009), who had participated in the UWWE’s second Japan tour and is now a flute professor at Beijing’s China Conservatory, worked closely with Salzman to plan the trip. China Conservatory covered nearly all of the ground expenses for the tour.

Salzman, who has visited China previously as a guest conductor, says the timing of the trip was perfect, as China’s enthusiasm for wind ensembles and Western music continues to grow. “There are about 600 wind ensembles in Beijing now,” he
explains. “It’s just exploding.” Audience reaction at the concerts seemed to confirm that. “Sometimes they seemed more enthusiastic than I felt we deserved,” says French horn player Elizabeth Janzen, a junior majoring in music education. “It was interesting how long they would keep clapping at the end of a show.”

That enthusiasm made the trip’s numerous challenges—which ranged from logistical snafus to last-minute changes in repertoire—all worthwhile. “I told the students ahead of time, ‘It’s going to be turbulent, just roll with it,’” says Salzman. “And they did. They were patient through many, many last-minute changes of itinerary, difficulties with borrowed instruments, late nights, early mornings, environmental concerns, unusual food, jet lag…. They were mature, clear-minded, and good natured through all of it.”

The students took time out to visit top tourist sites, including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but music was the focus of the trip. The UW Wind Ensemble performed six concerts: a chamber concert at Renmin University; the impromptu concert with the People’s Liberation Army Band; a combined concert with the Symphonic Band of the Children’s Palace in the Forbidden City; the concerts at Tsinghua University and the National Center for the Performing Arts; and a “side-by-side” concert at China Conservatory (CC) , where UW and CC students shared the stage and performed five pieces together.

UWWE clarinetists

UWWE clarinetists outside the Children's Palace in Beijing.

After the China Conservatory concert, students from both schools attended a reception that provided more opportunities to chat. “The Chinese students’ English is really good, so it was a lot of fun to hang out with them and learn about each others’ cultures,” says Janzen. Adds Winstanley, “One of their saxophonists convinced me to try the Chinese version of Facebook chatting, and we will probably stay in contact for some time.”

The UW students met younger Chinese musicians as well, during the Children’s Palace concert. Jon Wilson, a bass trombonist and UW junior majoring in accounting and political science, got a kick out of talking with the talented Chinese schoolchildren. “I volunteer with kids through the Seattle Youth Symphony, and it was really cool to meet young Chinese musicians and realize that the kids are remarkably similar,” says Wilson. “I found it eye opening to see that despite being on the opposite side of the world, young musicians are so much alike.”

There’s a chance Wilson might see some of those students again in Seattle. During the trip, the UW held auditions for Chinese musicians interested in applying to the University of Washington, including one trombonist with whom Wilson exchanged email addresses. “We auditioned a huge range of students,” says Salzman. “There were high school and college students, a student who had attended a conservatory in Germany, and an ethnomusicology student who auditioned on a horsehead fiddle, wearing the native dress of Mongolia.” UW School of Music faculty Steve Morrison and David Gordon handled most of the auditions.

The auditions reflect the increasing number of Chinese students interested in studying abroad. At the UW, the number of international students hailing from China has skyrocketed, translating to more Husky alumni in China. Camille Perezselsky, constituency relations officer for the School of Music, organized receptions following the concerts at the China Conservatory and National Center for the Performing Arts, inviting UW alumni and relatives of current UW students to attend in purple and gold. Over 150 guests attended—most decked out in Husky colors—including an alumnus who flew in from Shanghai. Also in attendance were VIPs in music, education, and government, including the press secretary for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

For the UW students, meeting alumni and VIPs was a wonderful coda to a week filled with new experiences and new acquaintances. Each of them returned to Seattle forever changed.

“The best part of the tour was watching the students do what I had hoped: jump into the experience feet first and relish it,” says Salzman. “Because I know what that means down the line in terms of life experience. It’s priceless. Beyond the stunning facilities and memorable performances in China, what these students gained is a very personal understanding that they are part of a global community.”