For this installment of ExpatDrummer I sat down with David Lu, Associate Principal Timpanist and Section Percussionist of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. We talked about touring, different ways of playing, and his audition with the Shanghai Philharmonic.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I grew up in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area and started playing percussion in 4th grade. In 7th grade I started taking drumset lessons with a local freelancer (and my middle school band director) Sean Kennedy. That summer I didn’t have anything to do, so my parents thought that would be a good avenue. I remember becoming interested with orchestral percussion when I first heard Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” live, and I saw how percussionists would play not only rhythms but also a few notes on triangle or something to add a color or texture. That fascinated me. For years I played in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, where I was fortunate to receive numerous coachings from Don Liuzzi and Tony Orlando of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Where did you go to school?
I actually began as a biology major at Lehigh University but, with the support of the faculty there, I transferred to and completed my undergraduate degree at Temple University. I studied percussion with Chris Deviney and Phil O’Banion. I also studied timpani with Bill Wozniak from the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, who I also took lessons with in high school. And whenever I had an audition coming up, I would ask for a lesson and play for Alan Abel.
What about grad school?
I always wanted to be a timpanist, so when I was looking for grad schools I looked for schools that had players doing well at timpani auditions. But I also wanted a place with a very strong orchestral percussion teacher. So, with my job now, that decision was definitely the right one. I chose to go to the University of Maryland to study with Jauvon Gilliam (principal timpani, National Symphony Orchestra) and Eric Shin (principal percussion, National Symphony Orchestra). It was a completely different way of playing percussion - to hear, envision, and produce sound. It was eye-opening to see this repertoire that I was so familiar with taught to me through different lenses. I did a year with Jauvon and Eric each, which was ultimately beneficial for the job that I landed.
What was the Shanghai Philharmonic audition like?
For my position in the SPO, I received a trial before even taking the audition. To see if the candidate had potential to gel with the band and work in China. It also gives the committee a more in-depth and personal look at the candidate. You get to interact with your potential future colleagues and pick their brains a little. My trial week was Alpinesinfonie by Richard Strauss, where I played second timpani and some cymbals, which is a big bulk of what my job entails.
How often does your orchestral travel?
I have been here for a little over a half year and we have already gone to 12 or 13 cities in Mainland China, including Hong Kong and Macau. We additionally have performed in Thailand, Indonesia, and, most recently, Philadelphia! We will be going to Turkey, Taiwan, and Australia later this year. So, touring is pretty important in our orchestra. On tour, we will typically play our subscription repertoire, sometimes with an extra show in Shanghai beforehand. We have performed Mahler Symphony no. 1, Bruckner Symphony no. 8, and a new symphony by our composer-in-residence Gong Pengpeng, among many other works. So, it is all pretty big stuff!
What is your subscription season like? Have you done any recordings?
Not too many in terms of audio recordings, but we have through other mediums. The Shanghai Philharmonic is a merger orchestra formed around 2004 between the old Shanghai Film Orchestra and the Shanghai Radio Broadcast Symphony. Radio, film, and multimedia in general is a large part of this orchestra’s cultural history and identity. We’ve done a lot of PR work, children’s education, and cultural activities through Wechat and other Chinese media. We are frequently on Shanghai’s arts and culture television stations and our players, myself included, have done live radio and television interviews talking about subjects such as our instruments or repertoire that has greatly influenced Western classical music.
Our season is a typical Chinese orchestra season, with a mixture of classical subscription concerts, radio broadcast concerts, and pops/commercial concerts. Our orchestra also performs a large amount of repertoire by living Chinese composers so we frequently use lots of traditional Chinese instruments in addition to our standard gamut of instruments. A big part of our subscription series this year has been playing movie scores with the film on the screen like The English Patient, Titanic, and the Lord of the Rings. It has been a blast to see the movies of my childhood come to life through me and my colleagues’ hands.
What instruments did you bring with you when you first moved to Shanghai?
I brought 2 or 3 triangles and tambourines and the snare drum that I was most comfortable using that I thought could be used in performance for the widest range of repertoire. I initially left cymbals at home because I wasn’t sure about the orchestra’s culture, whether players preferred to use the orchestra’s cymbals or if they had a specific sound concept in mind. Also, it saved weight on luggage! I carried two cases of sticks and mallets, and maintenance tools, because I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to get those in China.
What did you find that you did not need?
I definitely went overboard with keyboard mallets and snare drum sticks; the former especially, because I don’t play a lot of mallets in the orchestra. Timpani mallets were fine because we are always changing halls and, because of my “tinkerer” personality, having a large number of timpani mallets wasn’t really a waste compared to, say, 15 pair of xylophone and glockenspiel mallets.
What is Shanghai’s expat scene like?
The expat scene in Shanghai is pretty big. Shanghai is one of the most culturally liberal and diverse cities in all of China. Everyday on my way to work or the hall I will see numerous non-Chinese people and hear a lot of different languages. Almost all signs are written in both Chinese and English. And a lot of locals can understand and even speak a tiny bit of English! The natives are very accustomed to seeing a lot of lǎowài (foreigners). There are also many Western-style restaurants and even American fast food here. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Starbucks are everywhere, and Shanghai even very recently opened a Shake Shack! It just shows how many expats work and live in the city for those places to exist.
What would be some advice you would give to someone thinking about moving to another country?
Go for it. It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcoming challenge to really experience a whole different way to not only play music, but to live life. The culture of a country changes so much between cities and to visit these cities and sample the culture is enlightening. I highly encourage anyone who has entertained the idea of playing abroad to do it. Experience is experience, so I think if you can do the job real successfully abroad, working at home will be a piece of cake.
by Chris Tusa, March 18, 2019