Taking Spanish Trail Across the Pacific: Orchestra of Southern Utah in China

The American Southwest has many stories of valiant men and women, blazing trails across a vast frontier. This is such a tale: the journey of 12 United States citizens from Southern Utah. Twelve people who took the Spanish Trail all the way to China.

The Old Spanish Trail is a historical trade route which originates in New Mexico. The 1,200 mile trail travels through Colorado, Southern Utah, and Nevada, and Southern California. In 2007, the Orchestra of Southern Utah commissioned and performed The Spanish Trail Suite by Marshall MacDonald and Steven Sharp Nelson to commemorate and celebrate the route used by Native Americas, Hispanic traders, mountain men, and pioneers.

It was this Spanish Trail which our intrepid band (or rather, orchestra) took to China. Flying from the Old Spanish Trail????????s end point of Los Angeles to China, 11 members of the Orchestra of Southern Utah and conductor Xun Sun blazed a trail of celebration and hope across the Pacific to Wuhan, Yauyang and Beijing.

The musical delegation was invited to China ??????to commemorate the Chinese people????????s old friend, Helen Foster Snow and [develop] the friendship between two countries,?????? stated Chang-Sheng Mei, Principal of the Hubei Provincial Opera and Dance Drama Theatre. Snow, a former Cedar City resident, worked to develop co-ops to fight hunger and support the establishment of schools and hospitals.

OSU shares the Chinese people admiration of Snow and was instrumental in the placement of the Snow statue in Cedar City; the orchestra performed at the dedication ceremony in Nov. 2009 that recognized a daughter of Cedar City who had a positive impact on the development of modern China. Dignitaries from China joined Utah officials for the dedication.

Now, less than two years later, OSU and the musicians of the Hubei Symphony Orchestra met to honor this woman once again.

For several OSU musicians, this trip was their first outside the Unites States. French Horn player Debbie Nollan commented, ??????it was???????my first time to be out among people who didn????????t speak English. I thought if I listened real hard to people talking, I would be able to learn a few words. I wasn????????t able to learn anything that way. To learn any words at all, someone had to take the time to repeat than to me multiple times and then correct me as I tried t pronounce the word. Whenever I heard the rare word that I could recognize in someone????????s speech, it stood out.??????

This language barrier did not seem to trouble the musicians in rehearsals, however. Violinist Caitlin Robbins remarked, ??????My stand partner tried to teach me a few new words each day and I would try to use them. We often forgot we didn????????t speak the same language because of our mutual passion and understanding of music and what we were trying to accomplish.??????

The OSU musicians were able to accomplish much while in China. After only four days of rehearsal, they performed with the Hubei Symphony musicians in the Helen Foster Snow Commemoration Concert in Wuhan, which included a performance of The Spanish Trail Suite. The concert opened with lobby music performed by a fiddle group comprised of OSU musicians complete with a display of Utah scenery photographs.

??????[The] concert was absolutely amazing,?????? stated Nollan, ??????For the Chinese music, we had this powerful choir way up above us and the vocal soloists in front. The choir sound was incredible. It is always a very moving experience to be sandwiched between the soloists and the choir. The audience seemed to have a rapport that in turn made our playing even better. When the concert ended, the audience stamped their feet in time together. This is similar to our standing ovations.??????

Marlene Barth, mother of OSU musicians Marissa Barth and Robbins, commented, ??????The concert was exceptional. The audience obviously loves and respects Xun Sun and received the performance enthusiastically.?????? The combined orchestras and choir received a standing ovation, resulting in three curtain calls and an encore.

The OSU musicians performed in concert again two days later in Yueyang.

The Orchestra members were also able to do a little sight seeing in China and were well received wherever they went. In Wahun, the group explored the Hubei Provincial Museum, the zoo, and the Wuhan Conservatory of Music (Sun????????s Alma Mater).

The Hubei Provincial Museum gave the groups and opportunity to see the famous bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi. ??????The bells were housed in a large glass display and we could only wonder what they sounded like,?????? commented Nollan. The delegation was then taken to another building where life-size replicas of the bells were housed. ??????Chinese ladies in traditional clothing came out and put on the concert of a lifetime,?????? Nollan stated, ??????playing those replica bells and other stringed instruments. This was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me. First the regret at never being able to hear them ring, and the surprise of a whole concert was just amazing.??????

Wuhan also gave the musicians an opportunity to see the China away from the tourist scene, according to Barth. ??????Wahun is not a tourist destination,?????? she explained, ??????We saw the real China. How they live and work.??????

Nollan also noted how active the Chinese people were. ??????Everyone seemed to have work to do. Many older ladies were trash collectors. Many older men were busy loading flattened cardboard boxes onto their tricycles. Some men ran fruit and vegetable stands from the back of the tricycles or motor-tricycles. No matter the job, everyone seemed to be busy and industrious.??????

The Chinese were very hospitable. Barth and her daughters were invited into the homes of several of the directors and choreographers of the Hubei Opera and Orchestra for dinner. ??????There was always someone who could speak English,?????? Barth said. ??????We shared funny stories, insights, photographs and new bonds of friendship that we hope to sustain.??????

The people of Wuhan were very kind and interested in the musicians. In fact, as Wuhan is not a regular tourist destination, the delegation attracted a lot of attention. ??????Everywhere the young musicians went,?????? commented Barth, ???????people asked if they could have their picture taken with them. They were a bigger attraction than the zoo animals.??????

This interest grew as the musicians traveled. ??????When we traveled to Yueyang,?????? Barth commented, ??????our group reached ???????celebrity status.???????? It appeared like the entire hotel staff was at the door to greet our bus with welcome signs, photographers and autograph books. They treated them like rock stars.??????

The hospitality and special attention did not end there. ??????We were absolutely spoiled,?????? reported Nollan. ??????We were bused to the Hubei Provincial Museum, conservatories, and to various points of interest. We got to ride on a ferry, and on a high speed train. We were taken to a few different shopping districts. At the conservatories, we were guests of honor, and concerts were put on to show us the beautiful, traditional Chinese instruments and music.??????

Restaurant meals were also a time for the Chinese to show their generosity to their American guests. ??????The Chinese custom for serving honored guests is to bring out the best and most expensive in great quantities,?????? Nollan explained. ??????There was so much food. It just kept coming.??????

Barth added, ??????Meals were served on a large round table with a turn table in the middle. Many different dishes were brought out throughout the meal, until it filled the entire table. We were often full before they finished bringing out dishes.?????? Barth also stated that the proper Chinese etiquette was to use chopsticks to pick up the food and eat it.

The OSU musicians had many special experiences while in China. These experiences included a gift exchange with the Hubei orchestra members, bringing them cowboy hats, Mormom Tabernacle Choir CDs, polished geodes, crisp new dollar bills and photographs of Southern Utah. The largest exchange, however, was friendship. ??????I think our group came to understand that despite cultural differences, people are the same, Barth commented, ??????They work hard and like to laugh. They want the best for their children and try to take care of them.??????

Barth continued, ??????Our musicians were great ambassadors and made some lasting friends.??????

The OSU musicians have returned to Southern Utah, their journey complete, for now. Friendships have been formed and a common hero remembered. But who can tell what the future may hold? The voyage that began with Spanish Trail may have just begun.

For more information on the Orchestra of Southern Utah, photos of the delegation????????s trip, The Spanish Trail Suite, and Helen Foster Snow, please visit www.orchestraofsouthernutah.org.


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