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SDYS concertmaster tells of her adventures with the orchestra on tour

Members of the San Diego Youth Symphony & Conservatory at the Great Wall

Flora Li is the concertmaster of the San Diego Youth Symphony & Conservatory, which earlier this month returned from a successful tour of China celebrating the Balboa Park-based organization’s 70th birthday. This is her diary of the trip:

The first few days of the tour have been full of opportunities to interact with and take part in the culture in China. So far we have visited Beijing and Yantai, which have very different atmospheres, each unique in their own way. Beijing, the capital of China, is a city with a long history, and we spent a lot of our time there visiting landmark areas, like the Forbidden City (Gugong), Tiananmen Square, and The Great Wall.

Our concert in Beijing at the Forbidden City Concert Hall was a huge success, and the hall is definitely one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever played in. The sound is so rich and resonant, and I was in awe when the first notes of our rehearsal rang out because they were so pure and vibrant.

San Diego Youth Symphony concertmaster Flora Li. Photo: Nancee E. Lewis

Aside from the traditional tourist areas, we also visited some lesser known areas to experience the local Beijing culture, such as Qianmen street, which where vendors sell a variety of Chinese foods, and the 798 Art Zone, full of all sorts of modern art galleries.

One very unique experience we had while in Beijing was visiting the pre-college division of the Beijing Music Conservatory and listening to the students perform traditional instruments. Some instruments I had never even heard of before, and speaking with the students and learning about the similarities and differences between our Western instruments and their traditional Chinese instruments was a very eye-opening and enlightening cultural exchange.

While Beijing is a bustling urban city, Yantai is a more laid-back coastal city. Here, I can see why Yantai is sunny San Diego’s sister city. Today, our first day here, we were taken on a tour of many cultural areas in Yantai: the Yantai Children’s Palace, the Yantai Cultural Center, and the Yantai museum. Learning so much about the art, culture, and history of the local area has been very fulfilling and novel, as I have never visited this part of China before and thus do not know the culture as well.

Our concerts at the Yantai Polygrand Theater were a huge success. After our encore piece “Dahai,” the moment of vacuum-like silence followed by thunderous applause and cheering was delightful. During our time there, we were also shown Yantai’s beautiful beaches at Yangma Island, where we were told that Emperor Qin of China raised horses, hence the island’s name, which means “racehorse” in English. The blue waters and crashing of the waves evoked memories of our beaches at home in San Diego.

Yantai has a coastline every bit as idyllic as its sister city’s. After Yantai came the tour’s final stop, Shanghai. One of the most modern cities in Asia, Shanghai is known for its Pudong Area, full of the most cutting-edge skyscrapers and home to our concert venue, the Oriental Arts Center.

However, Shanghai has not forgotten its traditional roots, and we were able to visit the Yu Garden, a centuries-old garden full of koi ponds and bonsai trees. Seeing glimpses of nature in the midst bustling urban streets of Shanghai was refreshing. The Yu Garden is also near Old Shanghai Street where many older buildings are preserved. Now, it is home to a street market, echoing the original shipping and trading ports that were there before Shanghai rapidly urbanized.

Our final concert at the Oriental Arts Center was unique because the stage lacks a shell to reflect the sound to the audience, so the audience is instead seated all around the stage, a different setup than we were used to. However, the sound is more immediate and intimate. Above the stage there are also reflective panels, and looking into them I was able to see the reflection of the entire orchestra, and I was struck by the size of our orchestra, as well as how well-coordinated we are.

The orchestra is indeed one of the largest teams to ever exist. Watching the reflections in the panels was the closest I’d ever gotten to watching us play live. Our final concert in China was also my final concert with the San Diego Youth Symphony, and as the applause swelled up after our final piece I felt tears in my eyes.

I know that as I move onto the next stage of my life at Harvard that I will definitely miss SDYS, but I am also grateful to SDYS for being my second home, and the memories I made during my 7 years here will never be forgotten.

San Diego Youth Symphony