Written by Madeleine Loose (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Taiwan, Summer 2018
None of my Chinese classes prepared me.
No chapter in my textbook provided the vocabulary I would need to understand the choral portion of an orchestral performance. None of my teachers dedicated a lesson to the types of instruments used, or common themes of the pieces. I didn’t even know how to say “orchestra” in Chinese.
Frankly, my music taste skewed away from classical. I had never seen a symphony, and not because I couldn’t have if I had wanted to. It just isn’t my thing. No surprise, then, that when I learned our CET group would be attending a performance of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra, I lacked enthusiasm.
But I’m a trooper. I work within the group. If the group was going, count me in. Enthusiasm or not.
After arriving at the performance hall, we settled ourselves into velvet-padded theater seats. We chatted for a few moments before the lights dimmed. My neighbors had no more idea what to expect than I did – and it turned out they were no more enthusiastic. Finally, as the lights dimmed, silence engulfed the audience.
The performers made their way on stage. First the musicians. Some carried familiar instruments—a couple double basses, a handful of cellos, and a small crowd of trumpets—but many were a mystery to me.
A large choir followed, taking up the entire back half of the stage, with row after row of male and female singers. Last to mount the stage came the conductor. There were a few minutes of setting up, tuning instruments, and more setting up. I checked the time on my phone, wondering how much longer it would be until I could leave and get dinner.
Finally, the conductor took his place in front of the musicians and raised his hand. The music started low and quiet, gradually swelling like a wave rushing in as deep bass voices from the choir joined in. Within moments, I was sitting up straighter in my chair, focused on the stage. I could understand few of the words—wind, rain, cold—but I discovered I didn’t need to understand the words to understand the emotion.
In an hour and a half, the music rose and soared. The voices of two soloists leapt and danced among the stars, with voices so full of sorrow I thought they might break me. Transported for the next hour and a half to somewhere else, somewhere with danger, fright, and hope, it was a task to get my bearings in this world again when the performance ended and the lights in the hall came back up.
I still don’t know what types of instruments were used (but I am going to find out!) and I don’t yet understand most of the lyrics from the choral performance (though I have enthusiastically learned how to say “orchestra” 樂團 – yuètuán). But I do know how I felt. And I know that I had all the vocabulary required to understand the Taipei Chinese Orchestra: a language without need of words.