06 December 2012

A darkened Beijing Concert Hall

My first opportunity to see the inside of the Beijing Concert Hall came after learning that the Great Hall of the People was closed and both showings of the new Peking Opera "Red Cliff" at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) were already sold out two days in advance of its brief two-day run (impressive, but perhaps a little less so because many politicians probably have reserved seats). The concert hall seemed pathetically stranded across 10-lane (?) traffic directed by city guards and nearly hidden from view behind its own parking lot and high iron fence, and behind a mostly-shut traffic barrier. Seven large posters hung over its front parking lot, including one grand photo of the organ that unlike the rest didn't actually advertise an organ performance but merely the presence of the instrument, which seems to be the organ's primary contribution to many Chinese concert halls. The front windows were inexplicably covered so that it seemed dark and deserted, but a security officer pointed me to an unassuming side entrance. From there I discovered that the inscrutable lobby was indeed lit, but surely this awkward setup wouldn't lure passerby in. Two hefty full-color concert schedule books were there for the taking, much more luxurious than the NCPA's, but probably far less frequently taken home. I browsed the posters and the flyer stand, a bit reminiscent of Euge's and my "concert shopping experience" at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and asked the cashier what concerts were happening before Dec. 19. Besides tomorrow's orchestral concert, which I can't make, she said there was nothing. I held up a children's Christmas concert flyer and she was startled into remembering it; tickets were 200¥, she informed me, even children's tickets! I was astonished at how expensive this would be for the average Beijinger, and what a lavish expense it would be here to educate one's child about… Christmas carols? But I suppose I have just one chance to go at this point in my research.

A ten-minute walk from the concert hall, I found myself in old Beijing, where traditional shops and theaters used to line the hutongs south of Qianmen West Street. I located the Temple Theatre Beijing Opera House along an unassuming back alley advertising its "Mei Lanfang Classics" production with beautiful brochures and high prices. Beyond that, I followed pedestrians to Yanshou Street, lined with public bathrooms hinting at the poor plumbing of hutongs. The near silence of the narrow alley, isolated by dint of its winding shape from most city noises, made it an unexpected surprise when I turned onto Liulichang East Street and encountered foreign tourists roving the fake antique shops. A saleswoman at the only shop with musical instruments noticed my admiration of two large sho's, which employed shiny tin pipes like an organ, and tried to sell me smaller ones without knowing how to instruct me to play the things. Disappointed with the inept sounds I made, I demurred (they began at 800¥ anyway), and she suggested Tibetan singing bowls as if they were somehow related to shos (in being at a lower price range and thus an easier sell, I suppose).

Thus I wandered from Beijing's newest and most buzzing high art musical landscape to a Western music beachhead of the previous century to one of the only remaining relics of Peking Opera and finally into the sheltered soundscape of a historic hutong on a freezing December day.

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