BMInt invited Boston’s 37-year-old contemporary music group Dinosaur Annex, to submit articles on its tour in China at the Beijing Modern Music Festival. This is the third of three.
Thomas Haggerty is a winsome and personable 30-year-old tuba player who was brought up in New Jersey. He played in his high school marching band, but wider horizons beckoned, so he double-majored in music and engineering at Northwestern, then came to Boston University for a master’s in music. While there, he met and fell in love with Taiwanese-born Birdy Chou. Also during that time, he taught at the Community Music Center of Boston, but then two years ago came an opportunity that seemed like manna from heaven; he’s still chewing on it.
The National Centre for the Performing Arts opened in Beijing four years ago in a monumental purpose-built structure designed by French architect Paul Andreu and commonly called “The Egg,” a great elliptical dome that might have impressed even Kublai Khan, under which separate halls house theater, (Western) opera/ballet, and concert music. Under the aegis of the central government of the PRC, the object of the NCPA was to house resident companies in all these categories. Theater came first, and visiting companies filled in the other slots. Then, two years ago came the go-ahead to staff up an orchestra that would give concerts on its own and accompany the opera and ballet. While China has one of the world’s most generous and rigorous comprehensive music education programs, it has long been the case that many of its best products have sought final training and performing careers abroad. Therefore, the NCPA cast its net wide, holding auditions around the world, and not just for Chinese expatriates.
Thus it was that Tom Haggerty became first tubist of the NCPA Orchestra. We met with him and Birdy in Beijing during the Beijing Modern Music Festival, where the orchestra under its new principal conductor Lu Jia performed in the inaugural concert. As a former CMCB colleague of our spousal unit, Kathy Matasy, who was performing with Dinosaur Annex on the festival, Haggerty was extremely helpful with orienting us (sorry about that) to the city and introducing us to some of the best regional Chinese food we have ever had (make that the best). At their favorite Yunnan restaurant (Birdy says it’s her favorite regional cuisine) we chatted about what it’s like transplanting to an unfamiliar country and being one of a relative handful of waiguoren in a large orchestra.
Out of the 70 initial members of the orchestra, there were 30 returning Chinese expats and 10 foreigners. The orchestra cut the players a good deal above and beyond the salary, which, while about average for orchestral musicians in the US (we’re not talking BSO levels here), was generous based on the Chinese standard of living: the current exchange rate is about 6.25 Renminbi or Yuan (the terms are used interchangeably) to the US dollar, and Haggerty estimates that for someone earning a Chinese salary, one yuan is about equivalent to at least one dollar in purchasing power. For example, the Beijing subway fare is 2 yuan; if a US fare were only 37¢ it might be more cost-effective to make it free and save the cost of turnstiles and fare collection machines and people. The orchestra pays for one home trip a year for its foreign players, and also for one trip by a family member to Beijing. There are also professional benefits that not all US orchestra players enjoy: the orchestra has purchased a wide array of instruments that would not be the players’ “main axe,” in Haggerty’s case a full complement of tubas that are not everyday users, such as tenor tubas, cimbassi, euphoniums, and so forth.
So what’s so great about being a young member of an orchestra like the NCPA’s? “Repertoire” is the first word out of Haggerty’s mouth. Performing symphony, opera, and ballet with an ensemble that needs to demonstrate its chops has given him experience it might take decades to acquire with an orchestra with less than a full-time schedule. That schedule, which has included touring within China and, later this year, abroad to Australia and Europe, leaves little time to agonize over refinements, but it does develop flexibility and adaptability. On the BMMF concert, Haggerty performed in four of the five works on the program, including Robert Beaser’s Piano Concerto and several new works by Chinese composers. And, above the touring, he has enjoyed the ability to travel through China and appreciate its regional and ethnic diversity — and find out about Yunnan and Xinjiang cuisine.
Asked to name his personal favorite musical experience in the orchestra, he said “Turandot. In the opera house, from where I sat I could see the stage, and the staging of this production was very good.” Playing opera also helped his language skills, as he was able to compare the Chinese and English surtitles. It also established him as the unofficial surtitle editor, as the opera company appreciates his suggestions on making the translations more idiomatic.
It doesn’t hurt, from Haggerty’s perspective, that he has had to plunge into a culture about which he knew little and a language about which he knew nothing. He now speaks an impressive amount of Chinese and reads it as well. Here he had an ace up his sleeve: “My engineering background accustomed me to reading abstract symbols, so learning the [ideographic] symbols of written Chinese was not as hard as it might have been.” The honeymoon phase of his relationship to China is waning after two years, as he and Birdy, who is employed in the insurance industry, settle in to the daily routines and hassles of Beijing life — the cost of housing, the traffic, the casting about for ingredients for non-Chinese cooking (and learning to shop for and use Chinese ones), and the occasional perplexities of fathoming Chinese customs and attitudes. “In the West, we say northeast,” he observes both literally and figuratively, “in China they say eastnorth.” Still, he says, “I don’t regret having come.”