Walking around Beijing, I find it hard to tell whether my lips are numb because of the cold, snow-laden wind blowing in my face, or the Szechuan peppers which were liberally sprinkled on my lunch. If you’ve never had them before, their effect on your mouth is an exciting combination of chilli hotness, aromatic pepper and extra strong mints. It is that odd combination of pain and pleasure. Just like Wagner.
One of the joys of having a group of international musicians to travel around with is that wherever we are in the world, somebody I work with has local knowledge or brilliant skills with a restaurant menu. As we are in China, Chi has become an even greater friend than normal, although this hardly seems possible. When normal people run out of their set phrases at a tube station when confronted with a bewildering choice of tickets, or resort to pointing at a dish on an adjacent table, Chi steps in and prevents us ordering sharks fins or frog uterus. I’m not making those up by the way. Lorenzo of course speaks English, Spanish and Italian fluently but not Chinese. This doesn’t stop him though as became evident walking around the beautiful Temple of Heaven yesterday. There was a group of women drawing pretty circles in the air with the long ribbons that gymnasts use. Being Italian, gestures are a huge part of his arsenal, especially when playing the bass clarinet, and so he approached them and waved his arms around.
Within 30 seconds he too was painting florid patterns in the air, but then being a natural mover, I should hardly have been surprised. Lander wasn’t so successful. At lunch, Chi made the mistake of telling Lorenzo the phrase in Chinese to get the waiters’ attention. He now shouts it at every draining of the teapot, but we did have to admit that it was pretty successful. However nothing could have prepared me for Lorenzo the barterer. At the market this morning he insisted on helping me get a fantastic deal on some gifts for my kids with a gesticulation frenzy. We moved upstairs where he spied some dragon balm.
“Ah, I want one of these! ‘Ow much?”
“How many do you want?”
“My God, I only want one, I don’t want to export!”
Chi decided that he would like one as well and the woman suggested 500 yuan. Lorenzo jumped back in horror.
“What?! I can buy this at airport for 200! No, no, I not buy”
“Ok, Ok, Maybe I do you a special deal. 400 for both.”
“No. 50 yuan.”
“Noooo. 50 yuan for two? Are you mad?”
“A little bit. 100 yuan final offer.”
Lorenzo checked his wallet.
” Oh I only have 100.” He winked. “We said 150? OK? You are good at this!”
“Yes I know!”
We walked away smiling, undoubtedly having paid too much but happy all the same.
The concert hall where we are playing is called nicknamed The Egg for fairly obvious reasons. It’s a bit like the Sage in Gateshead, except much bigger, plus it has a couple of concert halls and an opera house and quite possiblly some more bits that I haven’t discovered. In short, it’s huge. The hall itself is great, nice and resonant and with labyrinthine backstage areas that are making me nervous about missing the second half of tonight’s show. I think Valery is quite big in China as when he walked out onto the stage last night, the reception he got was more akin to an audience in Daytona Beach. There was whooping and cheering before he had done anything, I noticed he was grinning to himself when he turned to face us as we started the Britten Four Sea Interludes. The reception afforded Sarah Chang was much the same as she swished onto the stage in a sequinned dress that made Maxine Kwok-Adams almost look under-dressed. I say almost, as technically this is impossible, but suffice it to say, stage right is very sparkly indeed this week.
The weather this week in the capital has been somewhat dull, and that combined with the pollution which seems to turn the moon orange at night is making me a bit wheezy when taking large breaths in the Shostakovich symphony. I managed to make it through without bursting into fits of coughing except between movements, however I will be glad to move on to Shanghai tomorrow. Gergiev gets a hero’s reception at the end of the show and seems pleased with the performance, the shouting and screaming that greets his entrances for bows rivals that of a rock star. We discuss this over dinner later in between Lorenzo shouting for the waiter every five minutes and telling him that it’s not the done thing to barter for the price of the meal you’ve already eaten. As we go down the staircase, there are hundreds of pictures of famous people who have eaten at the restaurant. Of course I don’t recognise any of them, being mainly Chinese film and music stars, except for Jackie Chan, and then we see a familiar face staring out at us surrounded by smiling waiters and chefs. It is Valery.
I bet he didn’t have to shout for the waiter though.