A performance

It is the night of 8 July. Dad is on a plane to Taiwan, soon to be welcomed by a typhoon, and meanwhile a group of staff and schoolchildren and parents have recently arrived from Fuhsing School in Taipei, and after a couple days of rehearsals and activity at Westmont College they shall perform, tonight. My brother is already there, rehearsing with the orchestra, for the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony had sent out an email to its members asking if anyone wanted to play with the Fuhsing Orchestra, and if so here are the parts, and the rehearsals are on these days.

And tonight is the culmination. The trees of Westmont are still seeped with the golden light of the Santa Barbara summer dusk when Mom and I walk up to the small campus theater. Inside, the children scuttle about in their uniforms, their black dresses and white sashes, black slacks and white shirts. That pre-concert din floats in the air: violins tuning, bows arcing deeply across cellos, mothers speaking to their children in Mandarin and the children speaking back. The mothers, youngish, in their thirties, are in uniform too: pale blue t-shirts that say Fuhsing in USA across the front in decorative font. They smooth their children’s shirts; take photos with their phones; lean together and smile upward at the ends of their selfie-sticks. About eight minutes before eight the room settles into silence. The performers—the grade-school orchestra for this first half—fidget quietly and wave their bows about. When the conductor, a short, older man with glasses and grey-black hair that hangs to the mouth, walks in, we applaud with the scattered patter of a small and diffuse audience.

The young ones, borne by the spirit of a full orchestra, play remarkably well, and we hear not so much the famed pieces—the habanera from Carmen; Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 5—as that spectacular sound coming from those skeletal arms. Two conductors switch about throughout the night: our Taiwanese man with the glasses and long hair and brisk and emphatic movements; and the local guest conductor, an American with white hair, not tall either, who invariably leads the pieces deemed more important. After an intermission the junior high orchestra takes the stage. The first cellist, a sturdy young man with short hair, plays as if in profound pain, with closed eyes and creased eyebrows, head swaying, bow bursting back and forth. He looks about to fall off his chair. For a couple pieces professional soloists, all young, all women, approach the front of the stage, welcomed by applause from the audience and smiles from the American conductor. A Taiwanese pianist with slender fingers and a silk dress of light pink plays a Bach piece on the harpsichord—a haunting instrument with its timbre of techno reminding us that we have gone full circle from the monotonic plucking of a box of strings to the synthesized chords of electronic music. A clarinetist and a flutist follow, and the flutist flounders about in full drama while the clarinetist, who plays in a passive manner, looks on quizzically and condescendingly. We momentarily forget about the first cellist, writhing as always. At the end of the program a wave of moms rushes up, with flowers for the guest conductor and the soloists and teddy bears for my brother and his fellow Santa Barbaran musicians, so that each will return with a small stuffed animal in a yellow polyester shirt with Fuhsing 2015 emblazoned across the front.

When the picture-taking begins, seamlessly, as if an extension of the concert, some audience members look around in bewilderment and quietly leave. We wait for my brother to pack up and come out, and meanwhile the orchestra prepares for their trip southward to Disneyland California to perform to the motley and disinterested crowds there. They will then make their way around the various rides, in the special euphoria blown upon them by the winds of the Happiest Place on Earth, and then tour their way up California again. When they return to Taipei the typhoon will likely have dispersed.

July 2015