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Bard choice! When Shakespeare gets lost in translation

9th Jan '17

Taking an 80-piece orchestra on tour to Beijing and Shanghai presents problems familiar to many businesspeople. Andrew Cave continues our Routes to Growth series

Company: Hallé Orchestra Trading in: China Sector: Classical music

It was an inspiring idea. Bring one of Britain’s most-loved orchestras to China and help mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. But even the best-laid plans can get lost in translation.

The Hallé’s latest tour of China, in July, was to include a performance of the overture to Otto Nicolai's 1849 opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, based on Shakespeare’s comedy.

A fine plan, but for one thing. When the title is written in Mandarin, it resembles a derogatory term for women. Cue rapid change of programme.

“The Chinese are building some amazing venues, but it’s hard sometimes to know who you’re talking to”

That’s just one of the pitfalls of transporting 80 players and their instruments around China – some of which will be familiar to those with less culture-orientated businesses in the region.

Even though the Manchester-based Hallé has done it before, China still brings risks and an element of the unknown.

“It’s a difficult place to tour because things keep changing,” says John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé Concerts Society. “The commercial world is moving so fast that it’s quite difficult to keep up.


Inspired: John Summers sees himself as an ambassador for Manchester

“The Chinese are spending a lot of money building some amazing venues, but because it’s a relatively new marketplace the promoter circuit is not fully formed. Because of the way the business is organised and because there isn’t a sophisticated marketplace for what we do, it’s hard sometimes to know who you’re talking to.”

All concerts need regional and national permits and because of the difficulty of understanding exactly who acts for whom, the Hallé makes its arrangements in China through the Intermusica classical music agency, which has been arranging tours around the world for more than 30 years.

It handles “every conceivable aspect” of touring, from contracts, accommodation and travel, visa and work permits to financial management, administration, scheduling and overall event management.

The Hallé was founded by the Anglo-German pianist and conductor Sir Charles Hallé, originally for the 1857 Great Exhibition in Manchester. Still based in the city, it is now a registered charity and has toured Spain, Germany, France and South America, and made previous visits to China and Hong Kong.

The July tour takes in five concerts in Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing, and features European orchestral music, some with a Shakespearean theme, by Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Berlioz, Walton and Elgar, conducted by its music director, Sir Mark Elder. It has funding from the British Council and support from corporate backers, including Cathay Pacific.


Baton charge: conductor Sir Mark Elder

“Classical music in China is a relatively recent thing,” says Summers. “It’s the fastest-growing market in the world for classical music. Millions of people are playing it there now. China is turning out astonishingly talented kids. It seems to have absolutely captured the imagination of the nation.”

The Hallé sees itself as an envoy for culture and business. Summers explains: “The tour is partly to serve this new interest and it’s also about the economic interest of Manchester in making partnerships in the world’s fastest-growing economy. We tour for two reasons really. One is artistic, but we also do it as cultural ambassadors for Manchester.”

Putting on concerts is inherently loss-making and the cost of taking an orchestra to China is huge in freight costs alone, says Summers.

These costs also mean that the Hallé will use Chinese choirs – even for the quintessentially English Agincourt song in Walton’s Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario. “A Chinese choir is learning it,” says Summers. “We’re also doing the Elgar cello concerto, probably the most famous piece of English music, with the Chinese cellist Jian Wang, who is brilliant.”

The internationalisation of culture is clearly bringing opportunities and audiences for the West. But a comprehensive Mandarin dictionary is essential.


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