"Sister Cities Sharing The Same Horizon"

U-T San Diego Article: A Warm Welcome In Yantai

San Diego’s sister city rolls out the red carpet for the symphony’s historic visit to China

San Diego Symphony logo(Read article HERE on U-T San Diego website)

YANTAI, CHINA — You can thank Xu Ming, whose official title is Party Secretary Director, Yantai Municipal Administration for Culture, Broadcasting & Television and News & Publication Affairs. n In other words, in a communist country where virtually everything is run by or associated with the government, Xu is the high-ranking government official who not only made the San Diego Symphony’s visit to Yantai possible, but personally made sure its members felt appreciated in San Diego’s sister city.

“I don’t think we knew what to expect coming here, and the reception has been overwhelming,” said concertmaster Jeff Thayer. “Overwhelming in many ways. (They’ve been) very gracious in terms of how hospitable they’ve been, how generous they’ve been. … No one in the orchestra is unhappy about any aspect of our experience so far.”

After a sold-out, statement-making (according to The New York Times) Carnegie Hall debut Tuesday, the orchestra flew Wednesday and Thursday from New York to Beijing, and then Thursday evening from Beijing to Yantai. Friday they had a day off before performing concerts in Yantai’s Poly Grand Theatre with violinist Joshua Bell on Saturday and violinist Augustin Hadelich on Sunday.

Symphony members were given the opportunity on Friday, however, to tour several of the city’s “AAAA National Tourist Attractions.” Like San Diego, Yantai has miles of beaches and is working hard to bring tourists to them. It also has an affinity with San Diego in its history as an important navy base.

But June Shillman, the president of the San Diego-Yantai Friendship Society, who originally conceived of the idea of a “Friendship Tour” with Xu, believes there’s a deeper relationship.

“People here are very friendly,” said Shillman, who is also on the tour. “They (have) open hearts.”

Certainly that was the orchestra’s impression, in large measure courtesy of Xu. When the orchestra arrived at Yantaishan Park, which includes several museums, temples and sites of historic interest, Xu was there, with a translator, to act as guide.

He explained with pride the important position Yantai, which now has a population of approximately 3.5 million, holds in the history of China, and he frequently interacted with music director Jahja Ling, whose parents were Chinese and who is fluent in Mandarin.

“He’s a musician,” said Ling. “He plays the violin. He really appreciates music and is familiar with my work.

“It’s kind of like they want to know you. It’s not like some people you meet and they say good to meet you (and that’s it). It’s not superficial; it’s like they feel really supportive and (there’s) a sense of belonging.”

During an interview, Xu showed several photos on his iPhone of himself playing the violin and talked about the importance of music as a means of communication.

“Music is the song of the soul,” said Wu through a translator. “It’s a common language. Music can bond us, from country to country.”

Xu couldn’t be present for the tour of the Changyu Wine Culture Museum that followed, but he had set the tone. While the musicians toured the venue and engaged in a bit of wine tasting, Ling and Hadelich were interviewed at length by the Yantai media.

In the “welcome banquet” that followed the musicians’ return to the Crown Plaza Hotel (an upgrade, apparently arranged by Xu, from the originally scheduled hotel), Xu was back, serving as the dinner’s genial host. With Yantai vice-mayor Song Weining, he invited Ling to the stage and presented three gifts: a piece of calligraphy (with a poem by Du Fu, a poet from the Tang Dynasty deemed one of China’s greatest), a fan, and an example of the cut paper art that flourishes in Yantai.

Musicians, staffers, several trustees and members of the San Diego-Yantai Friendship Society were treated to a traditional Chinese dinner and more of Yantai’s famous wine.

Xu offered a showcase of Yantai’s own musical treasures at the celebration, from a traditional Chinese orchestra to “Beijing Opera” performers. But the most touching moment may have been when Xu brought the symphony’s director of artistic planning, Tommy Phillips, and his new bride, harpist Julie Ann Smith, to the stage, dressed in traditional Chinese wedding attire.

Phillips had the most contact with Xu of anyone from San Diego and had visited Yantai several times in preparing for the tour. Xu said he wanted to honor a friend and gave Phillips and Smith a framed piece of calligraphy of a poem Xu wrote for the newly married couple.

The first few lines, translated into English: “Only with the strings does the harp give melody. Only with the feathers does a bird fly through the air. The music of the harp; birds gliding through the sky, may wings of love embrace you, may your hearts feel free to fly …”

Xu may be a good poet, and he’s probably a skilled politician, but he’s a master at the art of making people feel welcome.