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WMU music entourage hits high note in Chengdu, China

by Mark Schwerin

June 23, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU ensemble Western Winds in Chengdu, China.
Members of Western Winds rehearse in Chengdu
KALAMAZOO--More than two dozen students, faculty and staff from the Western Michigan University School of Music recently returned from a weeklong, whirlwind trip to Chengdu, China, where the Western Winds performed three huge concerts--two at Sichuan University.

The music school ensemble Western Winds, composed of professors in wind, brass and percussion and their graduate students, was invited by the vice president of Sichuan University to come to Chengdu to present collaborative concerts and demonstrations.

The residency, May 6-15, builds on a five-year relationship between WMU and Sichuan University. But until now, that bond has mostly resulted in exchanges between the two universities' engineering and business colleges.

Programs in the fine arts have now gotten into the act. It began in 2008 when Sichuan University dancers and musicians visited WMU, staging a spectacular and rare concert in the Dalton Center Recital Hall and engaging in other activities.

In return for WMU's hospitality, Sichuan University Vice President Shi Jian invited the Western Winds to visit his university in part to demonstrate how the ensemble incorporates chamber music into the training of professional musicians. In addition, Dr. Li Zhang, chair of the vocal department in the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, invited the ensemble to present a collaborative concert and instrumental master classes at his conservatory.

The Western Winds was founded and is conducted by Dr. Robert Spradling, WMU director of bands. It offers master's level students opportunities often only available to doctoral students, letting them rehearse and perform with their studio teachers at a professional level.

The trip also was timed to renew WMU's five-year exchange agreement with Sichuan University. Dr. Margaret Merrion, dean of the College of Fine Arts, went to Chengdu and represented WMU President John M. Dunn on the trip.

With between 40,000 and 50,000 students, Sichuan University is a major university with two large campuses, the main campus in the heart of Chengdu, a city of nine million people, and a separate campus northeast of Chengdu. Both campuses have in excess of 20,000 students.

Western Winds first performed on the main campus in a very large indoor athletic facility about two-thirds the size of Waldo Stadium. Their Chinese hosts constructed a performance stage and installed a concert-quality sound system.

A sold-out crowd gathered, nearly equaling a packed house at Miller Auditorium. Sichuan University's faculty chorus was to perform, backed with an orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments. The Western Winds performed four works from four centuries of western wind literature and did one Chinese folk song with the community chorus, with Spradling directing.

Spradling had been sent music in advance, but something was lost in the translation between East and West. A rehearsal before the concert helped iron out the bumps.

"It was just a terrific evening," Spradling says. "It took a little reworking, but turned out to be a great event."

The second concert was at Sichuan Conservatory. With a student body of 14,000, its primary strengths are its singers and pianists. Western Winds performed a collaborative concert with them.

"It went really well," Spradling says. "They had a student choir perform and it was a wonderful evening."

The third concert was on Sichuan's other campus and followed the same format as the first show. But this time, the concert was to be performed outdoors and a persistent drizzle had developed. A very large crowd gathered despite the rain and many were unable to fit inside when the concert was moved indoors.

"We again had a terrific concert that evening," Spradling says, "and it was a very appreciative crowd."

Vice President Shi Jain was on hand and spoke about the blossoming relationship between WMU and Sichuan University.

"He just seemed to really be delighted with the whole thing," Spradling says. "He was very enthusiastic about what was accomplished and spoke very positively about wanting to see if there are ways they can tap into WMU's resources to help build their music programs. I think, at some point, there will be an opportunity for us to help them do that. So I think that's kind of an exciting prospect."