Neves Conducts in China

Joel Neves and the Hubei Symphony acknowledge the audience at Qintai Concert Hall in Wuhan, China following a concert in June.
Joel Neves and the Hubei Symphony acknowledge the audience at Qintai Concert Hall in Wuhan, China following a concert in June.

Joel Neves is no stranger to living and working in exotic places. The assistant professor of Visual and Performing Arts at Michigan Technological University has lived in Israel, Romania and Hawaii. He has conducted orchestras throughout the United States and the Orquestra de Cadaqués in Barcelona, Spain. However, one country that had eluded him in his world travels was China. That changed this spring.

Neves is professor of music and director of orchestral activities at Michigan Tech. In that capacity, he is conductor of the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra. Earlier this year, a conducting colleague from China, Xun Sun, invited Neves to conduct the Hubei Symphony Orchestra in Wuhan.

When he arrived in China in May, Neves assumed the orchestra would be unfamiliar with Western classical music and would require some orientation time. But to assist in that orientation, he also assumed most of the musicians would be conversant in English. He was wrong on both counts.

“They knew their Tchaikovsky and Rossini and Wagner at an immediate intuitive level as well as any American orchestra I’d worked with,” Neves says. “But, I was surprised that only one musician spoke even basic English, which created a conundrum of communication during rehearsal.”

Neves had to come up with a creative, non-verbal way to convey conductor-to-orchestra information. “I would sing how I wanted the music to sound and rely on conducting gestures, both subtle and overt, to show musical shape and volume.” He found the communication barriers were short-lived. “Once the music started, we all fluently spoke the universal language of music.”

Neves prepared what might be considered a standard program of Western classical music; “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Liszt, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral from Lohengrin” by Wagner, “Barber of Seville Overture” by Rossini and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5.”

To his surprise, the musicians exhibited no signs of culture shock at the program. He says they were remarkably adept at playing whatever music was thrown at them, at a high level. “After we sight-read the Wagner piece for the first time, there was a palpable electricity and deep emotion that enveloped the musicians in the room — a real transcendent moment.”  Neves says it’s quite rare to experience something like that during a first run-through.

He says the musicians exhibited virtuosity throughout the whole process. “They responded quite well to my conducting. The soloists — the principal clarinetist and oboist, in particular — were so responsive to my gestures that I could have batted an eyelash and they would have turned it into poetry.”

While Neves and the Hubei Symphony Orchestra were seemingly on the same page, the Chinese audience needed a bit of an education.

He calls the audience’s interaction “unlike anything I’d experienced.” He says the audience was incredibly enthusiastic, almost to a fault. “They started clapping immediately after the first mini-pause in the first piece. They continued to clap in ‘inappropriate’ places throughout. I later found out the ushers were strategically placed throughout the Qintai Concert Hall with signs that read ‘CLAP NOW’ and ‘STOP CLAPPING.’”

Neves says the concert hall itself was breathtaking and the perfect venue for this experience.

He says the combination of the musicians, audience and location made his China experience unforgettable and opened the door for reciprocation.

“I will be bringing Xun Sun, my Chinese conducting friend who is part of the Hubei Symphony Orchestra organization, here to Michigan Tech to conduct the KSO," Neves explains. "He will perform some Chinese folk music with the orchestra, which will be a nice cultural treat for the Keweenaw.”

With the Wuhan experience still fresh in his memory, Neves is keeping his passport close by. In September he will make his South American debut in Paraná, Argentina with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Entre Ríos, and in 2016 he will conduct an opera production in Bulgaria.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.