Gospel Singers and China connect through music

The crowds that came to hear the UO Gospel Singers during their first-ever tour of China held to a pattern: Expected to be conservative and fastened to their seats, instead they were exuberant – standing, clapping, waving side-to-side and even rushing the stage.

“I’d never had anybody rush the stage and climb on the stage while we were performing,” director Andiel Brown laughed. “They want to be a part of whatever is being created artistically. We’re going back, for sure.”

The Singers’ inaugural tour of China – a spring break trip to Qingdao, Beijing and the Great Wall – made for an unforgettable international musical exchange: University students introduced Chinese audiences to gospel music, and in return were treated to the evocative sounds rooted in the country’s history.

The trip was inspired by Ziyi "Evelyn" Pan, '12, who sang under Brown and wanted to introduce her homeland to the Singers, an elite group in the School of Music and Dance with a strong background in black gospel music.

“I was so impressed by his unique style of teaching, which is totally different from the traditional method,” Pan said. “I wanted more Chinese music students to be in touch with this new type of music.”

Over a whirlwind eight days, Brown and 20 singers performed seven times, filling concert halls, universities, art academies and opera houses and playing prestigious venues including the Qingdao Grand Theatre. Dean Brad Foley and a group of alumni, parents and community supporters provided critical funding support.

The group met national-caliber Chinese musicians, top government officials and other dignitaries and were repeatedly covered in newspapers and other media.

At one point, a Chinese TV station covered a performance and interviewed Brown and members of the group; Brown is shown being fitted with a traditional Peking Opera costume and the choir sings briefly in Chinese. There is also a 15-minute video of the group in action.

“(The Chinese people) had never seen anything like this before,” said trip liaison Linda Hwang, another School of Music and Dance alumna. “When they heard about this group from the University of Oregon, from America, their ears perked up. China is very eager to embrace new things and Qingdao is a very lively city, very welcoming – they just embraced the music.”

Hwang, who is Chinese, is director of program development for Eugene-based Global Perspectives for Youth, an international exchange program that partners with the university to bring Chinese middle and high school students to campus; Pan was one of the first students in the program, and Hwang said that working with her to introduce UO students to China provides a perfect example of how the “beautiful partnership” between the university and the exchange program has come full circle.

Hwang, who introduced Pan to Bob Darrah, director of Development, and Robert Ponto, assistant dean for Admissions and Recruiting, both of the School of Music and Dance, was also a go-between for the Singers and the people they met in China, helping bridge the cultural and linguistic challenges.

The group’s contact and sponsor in China was Beiqian Mo, Pan’s mother and the owner of Haiyun Music Academy, a Qingdao music company that sells instruments, provides lessons and houses practice studios and a performance hall. Hwang and Mo worked closely to create an itinerary that would provide opportunities for the Singers not just to perform, but also to listen and learn.

“We wanted our singers to walk away experiencing the beauty of traditional Chinese music,” Hwang said. “We also wanted the Chinese guests to experience gospel music. We wanted something new for both sides.”

Pan said her mother enjoyed her time with the Singers and sharing their passion for music with local audiences.

“The reason she made this contribution,” Pan said, “is because she saw the dedication and love of music in their eyes, which the audiences had never seen before.”

One highlight, Hwang said, was a performance in Beijing by a master of the guzheng, a Chinese plucked instrument that is more than 2,000 years old. It’s often called “the sound of China.”

“We were all in tears – it was that amazing, no words were needed,” Hwang said. “Right after that our choir sang. That contrast is so interesting, East meets West, ancient meets new. It was ‘wow.’”

-- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications