Upper Arlington News

UAHS Symphony Strings

Beijing visit was a once-in-a-lifetime trip

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Members of Upper Arlington High School's Symphony Strings gathered on the steps at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center while touring China are (front row, from left) Brigitta Gegenheimer, Chloe Amsterdam, Daniel Wang, Yena Zerkle, Tanvi Kumar, Drew Harper; (second row) Laura Jennings, Meghan Razzini, Amy McMahon, Marissa Donadio, Jordan Popson, Anna Smoot, Julian Kroll; (third row) Ed Zunic, Jack Taylor, Will Collis, Jake Muratore and Nick Kochanek.
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Visiting other cities isn't so unusual for Upper Arlington High School's Symphony Strings orchestra.

Over the past 10 years, the group has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at venues in Detroit, Boston and Toronto.

But its trip to Beijing, China, from June 24 through July 8 was the Symphony Strings' first overseas venture -- and judging by the seven sold-out concerts, it was a success, director Ed Zunic said.

Seventeen student musicians traveled with Zunic to Beijing to perform as part of "The League of Astonishing Strings." He said about 30 people in all made the trip, including staff members, parents and siblings.

"The Chinese concert audiences were fantastic," Zunic said. "After each performance, we met the audience in the theater lobby. All of the Chinese boys wanted their pictures taken with our girls.

"And all of the Chinese moms wanted their pictures taken with me," he said. "Apparently, I'm 'super cute.' "

The Upper Arlington orchestra was one of three American high school orchestras selected for the trip.

As successful as the trip was, however, Zunic said a few things about the Chinese culture were "lost in translation."

"The producers of our show have been touring China for the last 15 years, so we were surrounded by guides and team translators at all times," he said. "We learned to trust everything the producers told us to do. In Shanghai, at our final venue, the producer told us that after our concert, there would be an 'informal sharing' performance with a traditional Chinese orchestra."

To Zunic and his students, that meant they could relax in T-shirts and shorts.

"After our concert, we changed, cleaned up, ate lunch and went to the smaller hall for the informal concert," he said. "That's when we learned the theater manager had actually sold more than 500 tickets to the performance. The Chinese orchestra was already on stage, completely dressed in their traditional concert clothing when we walked into the hall in our T-shirts and shorts.

"Afterwards, we learned that the word 'informal' was not correctly translated," he said. "The Chinese hall manager had simply meant that there would be a moderator speaking between pieces at the concert."

Recent UAHS graduate Tanvi Kumar, who plays the viola, said the Chinese culture "was cool, but definitely different."

"Every place we visited was full of ancient artifacts and it was cool to see firsthand how the Chinese view their country and how they interact with each other," she said. "The people have a tendency to stand closer to you than we were used to when they talked to us and they were always asking to take pictures with us. They also had a lot of peace signs going.

"I will definitely remember being able to experience firsthand the life of a touring musician," she said.

Being together for two weeks in a foreign country and visiting the Great Wall of China, a silk factory, the "Bird's Nest" site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and other famous landmarks, forged lasting friendships, Zunic said.

"I enjoyed watching the Upper Arlington students grow closer together," he said. "They all knew each other before we left Upper Arlington, but you get to know each other really well when you are trapped together on a bus for six hours a day. I know that the students forged friendships and there are stories they will share for the rest of their lives."

The trip came with a whopping price tag, though -- students had to raise more than $100,000.

"My most valued memory is the scrapbook of the daily events that got us to China: The nine months we invested in the planning, the six months of constant fundraising and the school year of rehearsing for this adventure," Zunic said.

"Philosophically, I believe a student's instrument is a vehicle. For some of our students, the vehicle earns them a scholarship to a college or conservatory.

"For this group of kids, playing in our orchestra allowed them to travel halfway around the world, perform in seven sold-out concerts and visit places that their peers have only read about.

"China changed all of us," he said. "First of all, if you perform one set of music six or seven times, what happens on stage becomes much more than a reciting of the notes on the page.

"At the end of the tour, most of us weren't even bothering looking at the printed music.

"When we reached Shanghai, we had grown together socially and musically. That performance in Shanghai was one of the most satisfying musical events I've ever been a part of."

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