High Notes Down Under

On tour with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.

November/December 2005

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High Notes Down Under

Drew Camarda

Huddled on the edge of the University of Auckland’s Waipapa Marae, a grassy field adjacent to a Maori meetinghouse, the 90 student-musicians of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra watched silently as a Maori woman with a tattooed chin approached. Reaching the group, she stopped and stared at my husband, conductor Jindong Cai, then sang out the news that strangers had arrived. A woman’s voice responded from within the carved wooden meetinghouse, and in a moment three men emerged. Covered in body paint, dressed in decorative loincloths and carrying spears, they slowly advanced toward us—growling, lunging, grunting and thrusting out their tongues in a fearsome ritual that caused my 3-year-old son to cling to my legs and my 1-year-old daughter to cackle with glee.

When they reached my husband, one of the men thrust his face up close—eyes bulging and tongue stabbing—and dropped a leafy twig on the ground. The tension in the group was palpable as Jindong looked at the man, then looked at the twig and bent down to pick it up, a submissive gesture that signaled our group’s peaceful intentions. The Maori men sighed dramatically and stopped gesticulating, and everyone relaxed, including the student photographer who was so awestruck he had forgotten to take pictures.

We were then invited to cross the marae, remove our shoes and enter the meetinghouse as respectfully as we would a church. Once we were seated—women in back and men in front—a chorus of young Maori performers sang for us as they pantomimed legends that seemed to speak of the sea and the gods. The Stanford students responded to the rousing performance with heartfelt applause, and a movement from Dvořák’s American Quartet.

When the last notes of Dvořák faded away, the Maori sang again, then formed a receiving line and rubbed noses with everyone in our group. We proceeded to the hangi, an earthen pit in which food is slow-cooked, and the students from two worlds mingled over a Thanksgiving-like feast. My husband spontaneously invited the Maori students to attend the SSO concert the next evening and was delighted when many showed up, cheering loudly and revealing that for most it was their first time at an orchestra concert.

From that moment, I knew the SSO’s 2005 “Down Under Tour” would be a success. Jindong is new to Stanford, and I was aware that some people thought him crazy to tour the orchestra his first year—perhaps even crazier to take his family along. I half agreed, but kept quiet because I am a supportive wife and because I have always wanted to go to New Zealand (and didn’t mind seeing Australia, either). While the role of traveling spouse with two small children is hardly relaxing, I got a unique perspective on the SSO, the power of cultural exchange and Stanford itself.

The SSO is an unusual ensemble because more than 80 percent of its members are not music majors. As the music critic for Australia’s national newspaper, the Australian, put it, “Consisting mainly of students across faculties as diverse as economics, astronomy, philosophy and neuroscience, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra has a standard that would be the envy of many conservatorium ensembles.” They are a dedicated group: they rehearse two nights a week, practice on their own and perform two concerts a quarter.

On the Down Under Tour in June, they challenged themselves even more, giving five concerts of two different programs in two weeks. This required early morning wake-up calls, green-room dinners sandwiched between rehearsal and performance, and one long day on which they flew from Melbourne to Sydney, rehearsed, gave a concert at the Sydney Conservatory and then rallied for a post-concert reception.

The reward for all this hard work was the opportunity to interact with local musicians, visit a part of the world where few of them had been, and give others a chance to meet Stanford students. As Jindong told a journalist from the Melbourne Age, “There is no better way [than orchestral touring] to get to know another country, especially when you perform with local groups. Music is about passion, and passion is only generated by people.”

The SSO worked with local singers, choruses and orchestras in Melbourne and Sydney. Many of the students were visibly nervous at their first collaboration, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and four top Australian operatic soloists before a full house in Melbourne’s Town Hall. But they carried it off with such passion and aplomb that there were numerous curtain calls and nobody wanted the evening to end. The next day, the Herald Sun gave both the SSO and the Choir “full marks” for a “brave collaboration” that “celebrated cross-continental cultural exchange.” SSO also joined the Melbourne Youth Orchestra in a joint performance, 200 musicians strong, of “Hoedown” from Copland’s Rodeo and “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Collaborations like these have such great emotional meaning for those involved that it’s hard for an outsider to watch without feeling hopeful, inspired—and envious. Nearly 100 members of the Melbourne Choir chose to travel to Sydney at their own expense just so they could perform the Requiem again. Likewise, a number of Stanford musicians who were not part of the Verdi program voluntarily learned voice parts so they could participate, too. Because the SSO already had agreed to work with four local Sydney choirs, the result was a mammoth Requiem performed by the SSO and a 349-person choir in the iconic Sydney Opera House. Bringing this together wasn’t easy—my husband had to expel any choir members who missed more than two rehearsals, and his arms were sore for days—but the performance before a standing-room-only audience of 2,300 in one of the world’s most magnificent venues is an event that all involved will remember forever.

It is a cliché of travel that leaving home is the best way to know oneself. In this case, local reaction to the tour was like a mirror in which to view the University and the opportunities it offers students. Simply put, almost everybody the SSO encountered was astounded that it had the “confidence” and the “resources” to go on tour every three years—even more so when they learned the tour had been made possible largely by the generosity of Helen and Peter Bing, ’55. Support also was provided by Stanford’s Presidential Fund, the music department, the Friends of Music, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the student-musicians themselves. In Sydney, Mrs. Bing was a cheerful participant in every event, from early-morning rehearsals to late-night banquets with didgeridoo music and dancing.

Stanford alumni welcomed the SSO everywhere. In Melbourne, they hosted a lunch at the Australia Club and a reception for staff and tour organizers. The energetic Sydney club went all out, holding a staff and faculty luncheon at Goldman Sachs, a pre-concert talk and reception attended by more than 200 alumni, and a post-concert reception for the entire orchestra. I was watching over my sleeping children during this glittering champagne affair, but my husband described the sight of his young student-musicians mingling with Australian alumni from many eras and walks of life as a highlight of the tour.

When our time Down Under came to an end, several well-meaning participants came up to commiserate with me, certain that the role of “the maestro’s wife”—being alone with my children all day, living in hotel rooms, missing all the parties and half the concerts—had been a taxing one. But the truth is that I loved exploring strange cities alone with my kids and watching the cultural exchange and music making. I’m already looking forward to 2008, when our children will be old enough to sit through a concert.


SHEILA MELVIN, a writer, is co-author, with associate music professor Jindong Cai, of Rhapsody in Red: How Classical Music Became Chinese (Algora, 2004).

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