14th Aug 2015

China Tour 2015, a journal by Alexandra Mackenzie

On our recent trip to China, cellist Alexandra Mackenzie was set the task of keeping a journal of the orchestra’s activities…


It’s been a busy few days for ECO, rehearsals on Friday followed by a mad dash to and from Buxton on Saturday, to play in the opening concert of Stephen Barlow’s Festival. It was a gorgeous day, England at its glorious best, but we had to leave straight after the concert to get back to London to rehearse for China. Lots of travelling and four concerts, with three different programmes but I’m really looking forwards to this tour. It’s a real chance for the orchestra to showcase some of its extraordinary talent with Steph Gonley performing and directing and various members stepping out of their orchestral roles to act as soloists.


It’s a seriously long journey to Beijing, with a stop in Paris, and we’re all looking pretty bleary as we reach our hotel 24 hours later, according to the 7 hour
time change. There have been the usual struggles checking in the basses, a few lost boarding cards and a missing suitcase still to be located but, otherwise, we’re in one piece. The general consensus is to stay awake as long as possible, to try and beat the jet lag, so we’re all ready to head off for dinner. Only one problem. The Chinese tour manager’s plane is delayed and so our per diems haven’t arrived. We’ve no money! The immediate solution is to have a drink in the hotel bar whilst we wait for an hour or so. Finally, loaded up with a weeks worth of money, pretty much the entire orchestra heads out to ‘Chef Dong’s’, which is just round the corner. Apparently it’s the best place in Beijing for Peking Duck. Can I call it Peking Duck anymore?

It’s a high class restaurant but, even here, it’s tricky making ourselves understood and the menu is vast. Eventually we end up with melt-in-the-mouth crispy duck, pancakes, fiery hot beef covered in peppers, cooling glasses of glazed frozen persimmon finished with a plate of the largest, juiciest lychees I have ever tasted, dramatically presented on a bed of smoking dry ice. An amazing start to our trip.


Reality bites as we hoist ourselves out of bed, at the equivalent of 2 in the morning, for a day of rehearsal. We sit in traffic for a long, long, time. This makes the M25 seem positively empty. Everything here is vast and, when we do arrive, half of us get left behind going through security, and have no idea where to go. The options are overwhelming, with three basement levels of rehearsal spaces and endless corridors with indecipherable signs. Someone eventually comes and rescues us. In the break between rehearsals a few of us head out to Tiananmen Square. I was 16 when the Tiananmen Square protests happened and the image of the Chinese man standing alone in front of a line of tanks is one that will always stay with me. I stand in the square, with a friend from the orchestra who is too young to remember that day, and I wonder what all these other people are thinking. Has this time been erased from the Chinese memory? I have no one to ask and cannot turn to google.


It’s a hellishly early start but this one is absolutely my own choice. It’s 6am and a group of us have hired a driver to take us to the Great Wall. We’re a little
nervous, mostly because our Chinese promoters have told us that it is too far to travel and they do not want us to risk missing the rehearsal or concert. Our plan is to be back for breakfast and no one will be any the wiser! It’s a wet, rainy morning and we whizz along deserted roads. We are the only people at the wall and wait, slightly impatiently, for the cable cars to start. Excitement is building. A rather ramshackle bit of metal appears and we have to run and jump on, immediately swinging out over a steep drop. It’s basically a ski lift. Shrieks and whoops accompany our 5 minute journey and then we’re there. It’s magic. The rain has stopped leaving a gentle, cool breeze. We are the only people in sight, above the clouds, standing on a piece of history. We marvel at the effort and ingenuity, the scale, and the majestic sweep across the hills in all directions. We spend a high energy, vertigo-inducing hour walking to various watchtowers before it is time to leave. The only slight disappointment is that we can’t toboggan down, as it has been raining we are bluntly informed that the brakes will not work. A good enough reason. So we jump back on the cable cars and head back to our driver. As we leave the area is waking up and we can see bus loads of tourists arriving, loud speakers begin to leak saccharine music and bossy instructions. We timed our visit perfectly. There is a nervous moment when our driver suddenly pulls over into a deserted spot and gets out of the car. In broken English he eventually explains that he has to change number plates, otherwise he will not be allowed to drive in Beijing. Pollution has got so bad that they ban different numbers on different days. We breeze in just as breakfast finishes. Time for a long nap before the rehearsal and concert.

It’s an all Haydn programme. A sparkling overture, with parts in teeny tiny handwritten script that have us all squinting, a classy Haydn D major cello concerto from Caroline Dale, a charming flute and oboe concerto with Sam Coles and Johnny Roberts, and a zippy, compact symphony to finish. I love Haydn and think he is one of the most under-valued composers. I should go straight to bed afterwards but I’m persuaded to head out, tempted by the offer of a subway journey. I always like to try public transport in other countries and find it really gives you an insight into the country. A friend has discovered a really quaint area with lots of young, trendy bars. We end up eating pizza in a crazy vampire themed area. Suddenly the skies open and we are in the midst of a massive deluge. We try and sit it out but it just keeps going. A proper, tropical downpour. We order a taxi and wait but, half an hour later, nothing. We step out and realise why. The entire area has flooded. The locals are wading around. We girls decide that there’s nothing for else for it. We whip off our shoes, roll up trousers and make a dash for the main road finding a taxi within minutes. We leave the boys behind, still umming and ahhing and not wanting to get their feet wet!


A weary orchestra heads to the airport at 7am. Shanghai awaits. A long day with a flight, rehearsal and concert. I immediately fall for Shanghai. It’s
cosmopolitan, but has its own Asian character, and buzzes with energy. Our hotel is stunning and I’m on the 53rd floor. Woohoo! The concert hall is a more normal size and people are really welcoming. It’s hot though, and we sweat our way through a second round of our Haydn programme. Despite, or maybe because of, the long day we all feel like a party. After closing a bar near the hotel, it’s a room party on the 57th floor. The views are astounding! We’re worried about noise so move to the lobby on the 38th floor, via a mini lift party which we decide to abandon when we note all the cameras! I think I might regret this tomorrow.


We spend a morning exploring Shanghai and end up in a dark basement car park haggling over ‘designer’ handbags before heading back to the concert hall. All Beethoven this time. Steph plays two Beethoven Romances, with buckets of poise and warmth, Ran Jia joins us for a mature and striking rendition of his second piano concerto and we finish with Mahler’s arrangement of his barn- storming Serioso (Op.95) string quartet.


Our last day and final concert. Time to make sure I have filled all my shopping obligations and have the requisite presents to take home. We all compare and contrast gifts and haggling skills at the rehearsal. I began badly but definitely got into the whole game, though I did end up mistakenly buying almost my body weight in tea. A lost in translation moment!

We finish with a Mozart programme; lots of sprightly staccato from us celli. Steph gives yet another outstanding performance, this time of Mozart violin concerto no.4. I’ll admit that it’s not my favourite piece, especially that trumpet-like triadic opening, but she very nearly changes my mind. Our last piece is Mozart Symphony no.40. A masterpiece and bubbling, fizzing way to end a great tour. A few celebratory drinks (we’re now low on energy and money!), a final early start and long journey and we’ll be home. The first words from my daughter…? Did you bring me a present Mummy?!

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