05 April 2012

Richard Birchall writes: For those of us without Chinese wives, this week so far has been one long and very entertaining game of charades; on European tours it's usually possible to dredge up some long-lost vocabulary from the hazy memories of school and muddle through (often receiving a condescending smile or weary sigh and a response in English), but here the language (and alphabet) barrier is so strong that gaining directions in the street or asking for clarification of what sort of animal is on your plate can inspire the most animated and creative of sign language. It's something we Westerners rarely have to deal with but it's rather wonderful to feel more deeply immersed in a foreign existence.

Luckily the language of music is universal, and it's a part of Western culture that the Chinese have embraced whole-heartedly. We've given three concerts in halls packed with attentive and appreciative listeners (any rumours that delicate and hushed passages of Mahler might be sabotaged by phone conversations from the stalls have so far proved unfounded), and we have enjoyed sharing the stage with three excellent string soloists from this side of the world. Music-lovers here are keen to nurture links with Western musicians and it's becoming such an important market for our orchestras - two other leading London bands have followed similar tour schedules in the last couple of months alone - and every time important links are fostered for the future. As in so many walks of life, the East is becoming a vital source of business and no doubt trips such as this will become more and more routine over the coming years.

Talking of business, both Shanghai and Beijing are home to extensive and chaotic markets, where I've been admiring the haggling skills and sheer tenacity of some of my female colleagues. (There's something about handbags. I don't yet feel the full magnetism but they are very powerful objects, even bright orange ones.) The stalls are so tightly packed together, every shelf so crammed, and every seller so vocal and persistent that it can be a challenge to get from one end of a row to the other (even a row without handbags); what's more, the last three days have been Qingming festival here in China - one of the seven official public holidays - so thousands of people have flocked to the big cities (just to catch a glimpse of the Philharmonia Orchestra, of course) and the crowds have been extraordinary! Luckily Mike and I are both tall, even by British and American standards, so with our heads and shoulders floating above the human sea it hasn't been a problem keeping in sight of our companions.

Last night a group of us followed the advice of an ancient Chinese proverb 'When in Beijing, eat loads of duck' and headed to nearby restaurant DaDong for a fantastic meal. We've all had hoisin duck pancakes at home, but it's really a special treat to enjoy it right here at the very home of Peking Duck tradition!

Today it's back to work and the first of two performances of Mahler's Fifth Symphony (we return to the First for the last concert of the tour, in Seoul), and we are looking forward to tonight's concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts here in Beijing.