Taiwan Tour Blog 20 March - 3 April 2017

Soprano Tricia Drummond writes: On Monday 20 March, after a rehearsal in the chapel at Heathrow airport, the choir set off for Taiwan. After 16 hours of travelling (including an exciting layover in Dubai), we arrived in Taipei and drove to our hotel.

Taiwan, here we come...

Upon arrival some of us chose to explore the near Shilin Night Market, which was full of things to eat, including many intriguing and interesting fruits and meats.

Outside the Grand Hotel

On Wednesday, our first full day in the city, we headed to the Grand Hotel in Taipei, which was designed in the style of a Chinese palace. We were singing as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the nearby Ming Chuan University and after our performance we received a delicious lunch and tour around the amazing and historic building.

In the afternoon we were free to explore Taipei, and some of us ascended the 91 floors of Taipei 101, an enormous sky scraper. This provided amazing views of the city and surrounding mountains. Another night market ensued for evening delicacies..!

Enjoying the sights

Basses Rory Booth and Laurence Cummins write: On an auspicious Thursday (Rory's very own birthday no less), the Choir of The Queen's College, Oxford, enjoyed a morning of sightseeing and later prepared for its first major concert of the 2017 tour to Taiwan.

Now settled, we were presented with the opportunity to become more familiar with the culture of the island and its capital, Taipei. To begin with, the National Palace Museum revealed visual delights, most notably the astonishing calligraphy and the much anticipated jade cabbage; to follow, the cyclopean architecture of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall offered a striking setting in which to observe the lengthy, intricate and frankly baffling choreography that constituted the changing of the guard. The local inhabitants of the nearby pond will surely be eternally grateful to the choir for their generous servings of fish food.

Rehearsing for our first major concert

Later that day came the concert in Xinzhuang Culture and Arts Centre, where we performed a programme of music from our latest No. 1 album A New Heaven (http://hyperurl.co/ANewHeaven), as well as a variety of well known songs both in English and Mandarin. We were cheered with rapturous applause after every piece and director, Owen Rees, was presented with the most enormous bouquet as a token of gratitude.

On Friday morning, we had the chance to ascend one of the many mountains surrounding Taipei in a morning hike. The effort of dragging oneself out of bed and then up a seemingly infinite number of steps was more than justified by the stunning views to which we were treated: on one side, luscious countryside and on the other, a magnificent view of Taipei's skyline, dominated of course by the monolithic Taipei 101.

Amazing views from the cable car

The rest of the day was ours with which to do whatever we wanted. A large group of the choir made their way to the outskirts of Taipei where the internationally renowned Taipei Zoo is located. A seriously impressive selection of animals, native and otherwise, kept us entertained for hours and a journey up the mountain in a cable car led us to a delightfully serene tea house with delicious tea and arguably even more delicious views.

Despite having crammed as much sightseeing into our free days as possible so far on tour, we haven't even scratched the surface of what Taipei, let alone Taiwan has to offer. The only reassurance we can give each other is that we will be revisiting Taipei later on in the tour. I wonder perhaps whether there may be substantial demand for another choir trip to Taiwan in the near future since two weeks seems an inadequate amount of time to immerse ourselves fully in this beautiful and vibrant culture!

The choir sleeping on the 7:30am coach

Altos Hannah Street and Charlotte Rowden write: After the Yang family kindly introduced us to the local nightlife on Friday night, we had an early start on Saturday morning. We were on our way to sing a couple of pieces at Ming Chuan University's 60th Anniversary ceremony. The event included a gong ceremony, light show, and smoke machine- quite a change from our usual evensong set-up!

Performing at MCU
Outside the Nanhua University library

We then left Taipei and moved on to Nanhua University in Chia Yi. We were greeted by friendly Nanhua students who treated us to a tour of their university. As well as being shown the green surroundings of the campus (that have earned Nanhua the status of ‘Forest University’) we were also allowed to try calligraphy, given a performance by some of the music students, and later allowed to have a go on the traditional instruments ourselves! We especially enjoyed hearing a performance on the Pipa- a pear-shaped plucked string instrument known for quick tremolo plucking with all the fingers of the right hand.

The choir watching a Pipa performance; Nanhua University music room; Patrick swapping his bassoon for a Sheng!

On Sunday morning we traveled to Fo Guang Shan – a Buddhist Monastery. Within the Fo Guang Shan Buddha museum is an impressive concert hall where we performed a joint concert with students from Nanhua University, to a capacity audience of 1000. They showcased a traditional drum performance, a Western-style orchestra, and a traditional Chinese orchestra with chorus and soloists. Our performance of an arrangement of the mantra Om mani padme hum was dedicated to Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of the monastery and of the Fo Guang Shan International Buddhist Order, and the audience stood for this.

Performing in the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum concert hall
The concert hall; pre-performance selfie

After the concert we were given time to explore the area- the giant golden statue of Buddha looking out over the complex was a particularly impressive sight. Dinner was hosted by Nanhua University and Fo Guang Shan and included a delicious combination of Western and Traditional vegetarian food.

The Buddha statue presiding over the Fo Guang Shan complex

We had an early night in order to prepare ourselves for a busy day of sightseeing around Fo Guang Shan and Koasiung in the morning!

At Fo Guang Shan

Soprano Olivia Hugh-Jones and countertenor Henry Taylor write: On Monday we awoke to the sound of gongs and bells, and shouts of delight at the prospect of a full vegetarian breakfast prepared at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. After this we were given a guided tour by several of the nuns, admiring the three large Buddhas of the Monastery, and thousands of smaller icons in niches along the temple's walls. We then walked through the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, and had the opportunity to be guided through a brief meditation before the White Jade Buddha.

Outside Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum

Upon leaving Fo Guang Shan, armed with chocolate milkshakes, we drove to Kaohsiung and ate lunch, a veritable feast of meats and fish (and even the occasional vegetable!) which we enjoyed with our friends from Nanhua University. We were then let loose in Pier 2, the trendy arts district of the city, whereupon we immediately seized the chance, led by our venerable conductor, to ride upon Kaohsiung's narrowest railway, measuring an approximate 18cm wide.

All aboard!

After several traditional 'jumping photograph' extravaganzas, we bussed to the old British Consulate at Takow, where we got to learn more about Kaohsiung's history as well as appreciating the spectacular views!

Enjoying the view at British Consulate at Takow

We then bussed onwards to our next destination, an unassuming tower block in the centre of the city. Yet inside we were amazed to discover a fully-functioning temple, canteen and a museum of Hsing Yun's masterful calligraphy, alongside his tea-sets. After a delicious vegetarian meal we were guided through this museum, and one of our plucky tenors offered himself up as sacrifice to sing some of Hsing Yun's wise words in English, after a Mandarin rendition. Laden with gifts we journeyed home to prepare for an early morning the following day.

Fo Guang Yuan Art Museum Temple
At Fo Guang Yuan Art Museum

We awoke early, and hastened to our coach, armed with myriad bready breakfast boxes. Our train journey was made more entertaining by the discovery of revolving chairs and its heady speeds meant the hours slipped by quickly. After dropping our bags off at Ming Chuan University's hotel, impressively run by the university's hospitality students, we rushed off to Da Tong High School, where we had the chance to meet, greet and perform for some of the lovely students, who had generously made cards, gifts, and had even prepared questionnaires for us! After a protracted and selfie-heavy goodbye we made our way back to the hotel, to enjoy another evening exploring the many wonders of Taipei.

Da Tong High School

Sopranos Izzie Grive and Ella McCarthy write: We began Wednesday by rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem, in preparation for our upcoming concert at the Sheldonian in April, which was both a rousing start to the day, and an excellent warm up. After some free time, which was mainly spent resting in the hotel, or with a bizarre trip around the eerily quiet Shilin Night Market by day, we set off for a concert hosted by Ming Chuan University. The concert hall (Zhongli Concert Hall) was in the nearby city of Taoyuan, and had an extraordinary acoustic which we all agreed was the best we’d sung in so far. Having spent some time tweaking our set for the evening’s recital, we had a somewhat Westernised dinner of Domino’s - though on closer examination we realised a lamentable lack of garlic and herb dip, which in Taiwan they swap for a packet of chilli flakes.

The choir doing some serious rehearsal

The concert itself went down really well with the audience of more than a thousand, with particular highlights including Fengyang Song and Ni Wen Wo Ai (The Moon Represents my Heart), which are proving the ultimate crowd-pleasers. Selling CDs after the performance was a big success (we sold 130, more than at any other single concert on the choir’s tours), and felt like walking the red carpet, though we couldn’t help feeling some of our younger guests’ biggest draw was the inevitable selfie that accompanied their purchase.

In performance at Zhongli Concert Hall

After the concert it was time to let our hair down, and some of the choir made their way across town, not quite knowing what to expect from a farewell party of a young professional Jacque (the tour manager) had invited us along to. Earning a glass of free flowing and extremely delicious red wine by singing an impromptu song, the night continued by visiting a Speakeasy, and we were then treated to a beautiful cocktail in an amazing setting modelled on an old library.

The group at 1914-16 Creative Park

On Thursday we were left to our own devices, with activities ranging from a trip to the insanely hot springs at 60 degrees in Beitou, to one group who visited Daan Park to enjoy the blissful sunshine. We both enjoyed a morning walking around the 1914-1916 Creative Park. Highly reminiscent of London’s Shoreditch, the Park consists of warehouses converted into boutique shops, contemporary art exhibitions and cafes. We spent longer than we care to admit in a Japenese chidren’s toy shop, which was full of beautiful wooden toys and gadgets. At lunchtime we headed to Longshan, and saw the biggest of a trio of temples. This was a real hive of activity, with ceremonies including the burning of incense and use of decision-making blocks known as “jiaobei” everywhere we looked.

Outside Longshan Temple

Lunch was another opportunity to sample Taiwan’s delicious street food, with wonton soup a firm favourite. After lunch we wandered down the aptly named ‘Herb Alley’, which was a real assault on the senses, with floor to ceiling herbs from aloe vera and mint, to baskets of ginseng.

Tricia enjoys some herbs

Dinner was spent for most at the nearby Shilin Night Market, though some of us ventured further afield to the east of Taipei and Raohe Night Market in Songshan.

Outside Raohe Night Market

Tenor Andrew Sanchez writes: Friday was filled with school visits across the Taipei area, where we were greeted with unflagging hospitality and kindness. The Chang Kiao International School sits atop a lovely mountain, and the school’s impressive facilities were certainly matched by its student body.

We were welcomed by the high school string quartet, girls’ choir, and orchestra in performances which showcased the school’s vibrant art program. Queen's choir offered a short program in tandem with a presentation by our director, Owen Rees, about university life in Oxford.

Our morning visit ended with a delicious bento box lunch before we headed back down the mountain into Taipei proper. Back in the city, we visited the Taipei First Girls’ School where we enjoyed chatting with the students, before offering a brief performance and Q and A about Oxford. The students and teachers at TFG were remarkably friendly, and we left thoroughly impressed by the school’s warm welcome.

We ended our very full day with a concert-length program at the High School Affiliated with National Taiwan University. After a thoroughly rewarding performance, the audience’s applause echoed our feelings as a choir. I was personally moved by our reading of John Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” a piece of remarkable simplicity, yet stunning atmosphere. We returned to our hotel ready for a good night’s rest, but with gifts and memories in tow from our hosts across Taipei.

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