Gerasimos Tsagkarakis, Section Percussion of Suzhou Symphony

For this entry of ExpatDrummer, I sat down with Gerasimos Tsagkarakis, Section Percussion of Suzhou Symphony. We talked about his language studies, his translation project, and his hatred of the violin!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I come from Corfu, Greece. It is a very artistic island, with almost 25 wind bands and a music tradition of a very high level and quality. Since I was three years old, together with my grandparents I was following the parading bands trying to keep the beat up with a fake drum! I also love swimming, my dad is a coach, and I used to be play water polo before I quit to devote myself to percussion. I love art (theater, painting, sculpture), sports and reading books.

 When did you start playing music?

Well, I wanted to play the drums immediately, but I was not accepted into the band because I was too young. Since I was so eager to play, a friend of my father’s working at the Corfu Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra that existed at the that time, allowed me to take violin lessons so as not to lose my interest in music. My first teacher was a young guy from Romania. As soon as my violin started sounding like a normal instrument and not like a crying cat, my teacher was deported as an illegal immigrant, a common thing in the early nineties! So, they brought me a new teacher from Albania who was too strict and basically changed almost everything I had learned so far. My last class with her ended with me trying to hit her with my bow and violin, due to my no longer being able to cope both with the instrument and with her! And, that’s why my small violin that I have in Corfu still has a crack on the side! So, the very next day I managed to join the Philharmonic Society of Corfu, the oldest philharmonic band on the island in order to learn how to play the drums.

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What was your college experience like?

I first started at the Ionian Conservatory in Corfu, and then moved to the Athenaeum Conservatory in Athens from where I graduated in 2006, being awarded with  the conservatory’s Gold Medal. My Bachelor's degree is in English Language and Literature from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens. During that time, I was collaborating with   the Hellenic Radio Symphony Orchestra, the National State Orchestra, the Orchestra of Colours ( founded by Manos Hadjidakis) and with various Percussion and Brass Ensembles. Then I went back to Corfu and received my Master's degree in translation and interpretation from the Department of Foreign Languages Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University.

After that, I was awarded a scholarship by the Alexander S.Onassis Public Benefit  Foundation and went to study solo repertoire with Markus Leoson  at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Weimar, Germany. After receiving a second scholarship by the same public benefit foundation, I moved to Rome to enroll first in the Music School of Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and later in Associazione Culturale Archangelo  Corelli . I studied symphonic and opera repertoire  with Edoardo Albino Giachino and also took timpani lessons with Antonio Cattone.

When did you first move to China?

I first moved to China in March 2015 to play percussion in the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra of Guizhou Province. I was there for about two and a half years as an associate principal, until I won my current position at the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra.

The Suzhou Symphony is a very new orchestra. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

The Suzhou Symphony was founded in 2016. We are a very young orchestra: most of the members are between 27-31 years of age. It’s also a very international orchestra. In addition to the Chinese members, there are members from Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, Taiwan, Germany, Morocco, USA, England, Japan, Russia, France, Hungary, Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, Australia, and nearly the whole cello section is from Korea!

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What is your season like?

We have our normal concert season, some chamber concerts, and some ballet. The Suzhou Ballet and Theater company was here 10 years before the orchestra was formed. So now that we are here, we collaborate frequently with the ballet. In fact, there is a project in the works where the percussion will hopefully be collaborating with the ballet soon!

How are the chamber concerts received in Suzhou?

We did a show last year that was very successful. We sold lots of tickets, and the show went over so well that they asked us to do four percussion concerts for this season! Instead of putting on a normal concert, we always try to create a whole story on the stage and interact with the audience. Apart from the purely percussion ensemble concerts, during the season there are lots of other chamber music concerts involving voice, piano, brass and woodwinds, strings and harp.

How is the concert hall?

The hall is great! The Jinji Lake Concert Hall was designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who also designed the Suntory Hall in Tokyo and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. We have pretty much 24-hour access to it, which is very important for the percussionists. There is a plenty of room for percussion storage and a really nice lounge. There is also a Grand Theater next door that we use for opera and ballet performances, or if it is a really big work to be performed, like a Mahler symphony, for example.

You recently did an interview where you spoke a very impressive amount of Chinese. What were your language studies like?

I love languages! My Bachelor's degree is in English, and my aim was to become more fluent, so as to go and study percussion abroad. I speak some Italian from my years in Rome, although I have forgotten most of it by now. Of course, Greek is my first and Chinese is now the third language that I speak. I wanted to learn Chinese because I think the language barrier is really a problem in this part of the world. I actually wanted to enroll in a Chinese university when I got here, but the schedule conflicted too much with my orchestra job. So, I just found a private teacher to be  taking a 3-hour class once per week, together with putting a lot of effort into daily self-study and trying to practice my speaking skills with the locals.

 How is your reading and writing in Chinese?

Writing is a bit more difficult. Even my handwriting in Greek is pretty bad! But, I can type on a computer or my phone just fine. I actually prefer to focus more on speaking and reading, rather than writing Chinese characters. I have already managed to memorize a lot of Chinese characters but I still have a long way to go!

Have you played any traditional Chinese instruments?

I always try to play the Chinese instruments when we need it in the orchestra. It is so much better to use the real instrument, and not substitute with something else that sort of sounds like it! When we visited Beijing recently, we played with Li (Greg) Chengying, a guy from Singapore that is studying Chinese traditional percussion instruments at Shanghai University, which was great because we all got the chance to learn how to play those instruments! I also have a few of my own Chinese instruments, a paiban, some small bells, and a thin tam-tam that I picked out at a gong factory in Wuhan. The next thing that I would like to get is a set of paigu, which are made right here in Suzhou!

 Are there any other projects that you are working on?

Yes, I am currently working on a percussion dictionary. It is a project that I worked on for my Master's studies, a handbook that contains terminology in English, Italian, French, German and Greek and is divided into autonomous chapters so as to attempt to give the reader the best possible knowledge regarding the various types of mallets/sticks, the playing techniques and the instruments themselves (membranophones, idiophones, aerophones-effects). There is reference to synonyms of the various instruments, in order to avoid any misunderstandings (e.g. singing bowls=rins=lins=jambati=thadobati=manipuri=minipuri,rin gongs=prayer bowls=Japanese temple bells=dobaci=kin=dobachi=temple bells=suzu gongs=meditation bells=medicine bowls=Himalayan bowls) as well as to the musical works that each term is found . In this way, the book is helpful not only to musicians but also to librarians and stage managers guiding them to find out which instruments are needed to rent and to put on the stage. I also believe it will be helpful to composers since they will able to check how a particular instrument is used in a musical composition and get inspiration to imitate and do further experimentation themselves.

The idea of creating this book came to me while I was still a student and I noticed that there was a lack of knowledge among the Greek percussionists, myself included, on what was supposed to be played, especially when it comes to contemporary music. Back then, there were only two major sources to get this information - the James Blades' “Percussion Instruments and their History” and the John Beck's “Encyclopedia of Percussion”. During my research, I looked at the material from not only a musician’s perspective, but also from that of a linguist, using pragmatics and semantics. With the invaluable assistance of some native speaking percussion friends from all over the world, I found that some of the terminology was wrong, especially the ones related to the German language! So, I attempted to correct it as best as possible.  After a lot of work, I was able to get permission from Thomann, Dick Waters, Rythmes & Sons- Sarl, ACME, PEARL, Knight & Hale Game Calls and Bell Percussion, as well as from various Greek manufacturers like Kleo Xirou, Gabriel Drums, Savvas Percussion Instruments and Siasos Drums to use high definition pictures of their instruments in order  to make my book more detailed and more useful to the reader. So, hopefully this will be published by the end of 2018. Now, I am looking forward to translating it into English and soon into Chinese, in an attempt to assist Chinese fellow percussionists.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking about going abroad?

For an orchestra player, it can be a great thing. You have the opportunity to perform in great halls, play amazing repertoire and work with world class composers and conductors. As a pure experience, it is a good life lesson. Putting yourself in a different situation will definitely make you a better person. You also have to take risks! If not, you will always have a what if in your head.

Chris Tusa, October 21, 2018