October News Letter
It wasn’t the first time the Sydney Balalaika Orchestra (SBO) had visited China, but it was the first time it had visited Beijing. The SBO gave 4 concerts in less than a week; 3 in Beijing (population 22 million) and 1 in Tianjin, a satellite city (pop 10 million. According to our program coordinator/interpreter Gao Ley we were very well received in both cities.
The tour was organised and facilitated by Igor & Alla Savitsky of Sydney who have been the orchestra’s patrons and tour managers of all the overseas trips to Russia, China & NZ.
This concert arose from an invitation by the Beijing’s Russian Cultural Centre to perform in Beijing at the Centre itself, as well as at the Chinese Cultural Committee Theatre and in Tianjin at Chinese-Russian Tiananmen Square Centre of Culture and Art at the Tianjin University. “The Chinese don’t normally give standing ovations, so that puts you in a different category straight away” said our guide Gao Ley. “And when they want to rush up after the show & take ‘selfies’ of themselves, with some of the more ‘obscure’ members of the orchestra, that means you have passed into a different sphere yet again” he said. The trip was declared a resounding success.
“It was one of our most successful tours,” said Victor Serghie, the SBO’s musical director. “The orchestra performed consistently at a very high level and the thunderous applause at all the 4 performances proved that fact”. And Victor doesn’t give praise like that lightly. It all started on the 11th of September 2014 in the shadow of 9/11 when 22 musicians and Igor Savitsky along with 1,730 kilos of Russian folk instruments including domras, accordions & balalaikas were assembled at Sydney Airport to board Air China flight CA174 for Beijing. The ground staff didn’t know what had hit them. Some of the SBO instruments are seriously large.
“Loading the contra-bass balalaika caused a bit of hiatus with airport staff as it is rather an awkward shape” said orchestra President Bruce Barker. “But due to excellent preparation each instrument was measured, weighed-in & duly tagged. Everything was accepted onto the flight. “As for the members: trying to organise 23 independently minded musicians can be rather like trying to herd cats” he said. “But somehow we got there, no one was lost, no instruments were broken or lost in transit – very satisfactory,” said Bruce.
For musical director Victor Serghie it was like a trip down memory lane. “I was born in northern China in 1945” said Victor, “to a Russian mother & Rumanian father. I had my musical education in the Russian School in Harbin, which was a largely Russian-speaking exclave in Northern China. That’s where my love of Russian folk music was minted,” he said. So perhaps it was no surprise that during this Beijing tour, Victor was shadowed by a Harbin based TV crew making a documentary about the SBO’s China visit. This SBO’s follow-up visit showcased a strong Russian folk theme to an emerging Chinese middle class, with a clearly developed taste for such music. And it is all happening at a time when the Russian Federation and China are locked in a major cultural exchange. The SBO gave one concert at the Russian Cultural Centre & two at the Chinese Cultural Committee theatre - both in one day. This theatre has been installed in the old printing works that used to produce the “Little Red Book”, and the “Thoughts of Chairman Mao”.
The complex is now an arts centre with an experimental artistic theme. One of the SBO’s concerts there featured a song by renowned Beijing singer & China ‘heart-throb’, Lilly Pan Siaofen. She sang the Russian hit song ‘A Million Red Roses’ joined by SBO singer Sophia Markovtzev. Their duet drew wild applause. First sounds of orchestra playing a well-known and very much liked Chinese “Welcome to my City” song and the first words, with excellent Chinese pronunciation, by Sophia Markovtzev were welcomed by huge roar and applause. Our friend and guide Gao Ley who, as it turned out, is a singer of Russian songs in almost perfect Russian, are on a CD which he presented to us. He enjoyed our performances and made particular comments about our hidden percussionist young Sonja. Her professional mastering of numerous instruments, “gadgets” totally overwhelmed Gao Ley.
SBO at the Chinese Cultural Committee Theatre - Lilli Pan Siaofen in red with Sophia Markovtzev performing 'A Million red Roses'
Audience members attending from the Russian Cultural Centre and the Russian Embassy to China were equally impressed with the SBO’s performances and there was much talk of a possible return visit. It should be noted that Sydney is not that much further from Beijing than is Moscow, but what really impressed them was the fact that here was a bunch of Aussies prepared to pay their own airfares to Beijing just to make music for the love of it.
The SBO also travelled by coach to Tianjin to give a concert at the University. Tianjin University has a reputation for its study of the Russian arts and the performance theatre was packed. “Our virtuoso cimbalom player Lucy Voronov was touring the music faculty,” said Victor Serghie, “when she happened to hear a brilliant performance by one of the students on a traditional Chinese instrument, the Guzheng (a Chinese plucked zither). After a short practice session, they agreed to perform a piece live together.” He said. “None of us knew how it was going to go, but the result was magic. They both played together quite brilliantly – an example of two professional musicians coming together & creating something totally new.” At least the audience seemed to think so too. They all leapt to their feet in wild applause. But all good things come to an end and after a very successful tour with rave reviews, the SBO members checked in their instruments at Beijing’s massive International Airport for the return flight to Australia – with only one near-disaster. Following Malaysian Airways flight MH130 on which a lot of Chinese passengers disappeared, Beijing airport is naturally very security-conscious. The SBO’s president Bruce Barker takes up the story. “All of the instruments were checked in successfully with the exception of the last item, my Contra-bass balalaika. The instruments had to be x-rayed to ensure there were no explosives inside. The Russian Cultural Centre problem was, the Contra-bass balalaika would not fit through the security x-ray. ‘Why not open up the case & have a look inside?’ I asked. “That seemed too logical a suggestion for ‘jumpy’ airport security staff. A higher authority had to be contacted. This was eventually done. A much bigger x-ray machine was found four floors below and two hours later we were cleared and only just caught the flight! It all added a bit of hilarity to the occasion!” said Bruce. The hilarity was retrospective. There wasn’t much laughing at the time! But there was a warm inner glow, knowing that we had all performed to our best.
Special thanks go to the Beijing’s Russian Cultural Centre Director Mr Victor A. Konnov, his deputy Vladimir G. Markin and program coordinator Gao Ley for inviting us to perform in Beijing and Tianjin. Their staff and everyone involved at the concert venues have treated us with utmost hospitality.
Tianjin University, China Tour, 2014
TRANSLATION OF NEWS ARTICLE IN BEIJING WEB MEDIA - 19 SEPT 2014
On September 14, the Russian Cultural Centre in Beijing held a concert featuring the Sydney orchestra of Russian folk instruments "Balalaika”. The concert was not only an event in the cultural life of Russian compatriots but also attracted the attention of a most demanding audience. That evening, the Russian Cultural Centre had visitors from a number of CIS countries, high-ranking diplomats from other countries, representatives of the Ministries of Culture and Education of China, Culture of China, and correspondents from Russian and Chinese media.
The orchestra members are of different national origins - the descendants of the first Russian immigrants still call themselves "harbintsy" (i.e. from Harbin, China) as well as Ukrainians, Poles, Serbs, N. American, Chinese and of course Australians. All of them are residents of distant Sydney – and they all have a united and sincere love of Russian songs and music.
Besides Beijing, the Sydney orchestra of Russian folk instruments "Balalaika" gave a concert in Tianjin, which was attended by more than 500 people - teachers and students at the local university, representatives of the city government with standing room only. The performance was repeatedly interrupted by applause and there were speeches and flowers presented. Senior diplomats of several countries as well as local cultural figures praised the skill and professionalism of soloists and orchestra musicians. In impromptu speeches, they also expressed their deep gratitude to the artists.
To all our faithful supporters we extend our thanks for your warm support and send you our best wishes for Christmas and the new year.