The Forbidden Concert Hall
Friday, February 13
We may have finally found a venue on this tour to match the massive inhuman scale of our repertoire. While exploring Tianamen square I kept bumping into the ghost of Anton Bruckner. Out for a stroll, hands clasped behind his back, the venerable composer nodded in silent approval, dreaming of ways to subjugate another string section beneath his musical fist of iron. It seems as if regular-old socialists and their ‘national’ brethren share some taste in architecture.
The scheduled 2-hour morning rehearsal was converted to one of the 45-minute pre concert warm-ups so I did not arrive in the vicinity of the ‘Egg’ (National Center for the Performing Arts) until about 4 in the afternoon. I enjoy arriving at a new concert hall alone, not with the group, in part to see how these architectural marvels yield up their secrets to a more or less ordinary person encountering them with the modest goal of entering, perhaps finding a bathroom, my instrument, and finally the stage. The ‘Egg’ proved a tough nut to crack, if I can scramble up a tasty hash of metaphors.
Most concert halls have stage doors or performers’ entrances at the back, or the side. Being round and surrounded by a defensive moat, the ‘Egg’ did not present an obvious point of entry for a footsore double bassist. A preliminary circumnavigation revealed two subterranean entrances 180 degrees apart. Looking decidedly more ghetto, one of them seemed the obvious choice.
Approaching the guard on duty, I produced my orchestra photo ID card and said (Blah, Blah) Symphony Orchestra, musician. I made the universal symbol – playing air violin and tapping my chest – but the guard shook his head and smiled sheepishly at my antics before summoning over a gentleman in a suit who had been chatting loudly on a cell phone a few feet away. This fellow seemed genuinely put off at having to end his call. When I presented my card he made a face as if I had just waved something extremely foul smelling under his nose. He shook his head violently and said in English, no, No, NO! and then something in Chinese that sounded like ‘getthehellouttahere!’ (but in all fairness could have been anything) while waving me off in the direction of the other entrance.
At the other side I was able to penetrate two sets of doors before arriving in what seemed to be a lobby for audience members. The guard at the roped off entryway was already shaking his head before I had my ID out, but I repeated my air violin performance for him anyway. Noticing a large photo of Bernhard Haitink hanging above his head I added what I hoped would be clarification (but probably only made me look irredeemably silly) by pointing to the photo, making motions of shaking the Maestro’s hand, and him warmly reciprocating by patting me on the back. (Incidentally, there is a photo of this very spot in the New York Times of February 16, page C3, where you can see the guard in ominous silhouette, the photo of Haitink in the distance.)
Beside the guard sat an officious looking lady at a small desk. When asked if she spoke English, she responded ‘a little bit’ and so I repeated my attempt at self-identification, downplaying the visuals somewhat. She gave a look of what I mistakenly took to be understanding until she led me to what appeared for all the world to be the ticket counter and left me there. Again, I repeated the charade for a group of bemused young ladies who had no idea what I was about. After I rejected the ticket they pushing in my direction, three of them huddled in conversation for a long time before one of them turned back to me, beaming. You, she said, finger pointing to the ceiling, are an actor! Her smile froze. Apparently that was the end of the line as far as she was concerned.
Heading back towards the guard and the lady at the desk, I noticed one of my colleagues, who appeared to be taking the first steps down the same rode I had started off on, now some forty minutes ago. The presence of two babbling foreigners in the lobby was enough to spur somebody to action. We were eventually taken to a room where my colleague spoke to somebody on the phone and I handed over my passport (?), which was returned along with a pink slip of paper. Whatever was written on the paper proved to be pure gold, because the formerly recalcitrant guard waved us through without another look. All that remained was the metal detector, a frisking, and a couple more locked doors that could only be opened by the person whose job it was to open them, but we were on our way!