Tales From The Silk Road by Viviana Guzman

Suzanne Teng wrote to Viviana Guzman asking about her recent tour through the Silk Road.  Following are the questions and answers that ensued.

Suzanne:  Viviana, I am so awed by how much you do and am particularly inspired by your world travels.  I think with your recent trip to Uzbekistan, you are now up to 130 countries that you have performed in?  First of all, can you summarize that trip and the experience you had performing for the audiences there? Your videos and photos are stunning!

Viviana:  I was extremely fortunate to be able to fulfill a childhood dream of mine: to visit The Silk Road.  I played as a soloist with the orchestra in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, gave masterclasses and entrepreneurial lectures, and then did a Masterclass/Recital tour of Samarkand and Bukhara.  

The whole time I felt that I was living one of the tales from A Thousand and One Nights that I grew up reading.  I was treated like royalty wherever I went, with TV interviews, wonderful hotel stays, amazing dining options with inspiring, warm, and welcoming people.  The whole time I felt I was in a wonderful dream!  I felt I had become a character in one of Scheherazade’s tales. I have always been attracted to the colorful dress and traditions of the people from the "Stans" and surrounding areas; the mixture of Asian, Persian and Turkish cultures is unique and like no other that I have seen in my travels. To finally visit, was a dream come true.

What did you like best about your your Silk Road Tour?

Since it had been a long time dream of mine to visit that part of the world, the whole experience was beyond magnificent.  I have been fascinated with the Central Asian culture for decades.  In fact, when I was younger, I participated in a Central Asian fashion show.  I represented Turkmenistan.  And since then, I have collected jewelry and clothing from Central Asia for years.  

I have had a long time fascination for yurts.  I lived in an oceanfront yurt for 3 years when I first moved out to California after I graduated from Juilliard.  I have stayed in countless yurts around the world.  Currently, I have a Mongolian yurt in my backyard in my home in Half Moon Bay.  But I was most excited to be in the area where yurts were originally from!  I feel most comfortable sleeping inside a yurt.  Every time I would spot a yurt, I would have to take a picture.  I felt a special kinship being in the land of the original yurt dwellers.

From the moment I landed and was picked up by my hosts, I knew I was in good hands.  The Kyrgyz people were so warm and hospitable.  Their attention to detail making sure I was taken care of, was impeccable.  I was staying in the penthouse suite of the Bishkek Plaza Hotel… aka:  HEAVEN.  I LOVED my suite.  I had a patio where I had my breakfast every morning.  I was kept busy teaching masterclasses, giving Entrepreneurial Lectures, and rehearsing for the concert.

The mosques and the Registan in Samarkand were also spectacular displays of craftsmanship and artistry; and hearing the call to prayer there really transports you to another time. I was in the mosque part of a historic temple, sitting with my driver and host, when the driver started singing prayers.  Instantly, all the tourists became silent as we all observed a moment of prayer.  I felt so touched by this moment, that I found it hard to hold back the tears. The singing stirred up something deep inside me.

How about experiences that were especially moving?

The Central Asian culture has a reputation for being incredibly hospitable.  They will go out of their way to make sure the foreigner is well taken care of.  I believe that this is the one detail that we perhaps don’t think so much about in the west.  We don’t necessarily open our hearts and our doors to complete strangers from other cultures, where as in Central Asia, they will go beyond to make you feel welcome.

The conductor of the orchestra in Bishkek, Ernis Asanaliev, has a heart of gold.  He went out of his way to take me into the Kyrgyz mountains because he knew that I was a nature lover, on his one day off.  He always made sure I had an English speaker at every meal so that I always had someone with whom to speak.  When we parted, I felt his warmth and sincerity to such a great degree that I was deeply moved to the point of having to fight back tears.

I was deeply moved by my excursion into the Kyryz mountains.  There were so many yurts!  And it is here where I learned about the "Manas Storytellers" or singers who would recite their epic historical tales.  I heard one of these Manas singers inside a yurt.  For me, this was life changing.  The whole experience shook me inside.

I felt I made a real connection with the man who became my taxi driver and guide in Uzbekistan.  Very few people there speak English, and it's very hard to get around without an English speaker.  After being hired on by my sponsors to take me to some specific locations, I asked him if he could drive me to see some of the sights. He very generously showed me around.  He went out of his way to make sure I was ok at all times.  He came to pick me up when I returned from Bukhara by bus.  I got to meet his lovely family, and he asked me to help him apply for a visa to visit the United States with his family, which I was happy to do. What really impressed me is that when I asked him what he wanted out of life, he just said simply that he wanted his family to be happy.  That really touched me. 

There were countless people along my journey who touched me deeply.  The members of both the orchestras I played with were all so warm and supportive.  I think Central Asians are some of the warmest and generous people I have encountered.

I saw you jamming with a local drummer in one of your recent videos. Do you have many of these experiences with locals?

Haha!  This is my favorite thing to do!!  As we all know that music is the universal language, well, I love getting to know the people of each country in this way.  I always carry some kind of flute in my purse, just in case!

How did you start your journey performing abroad and what were the first countries you performed in?

I was born in Concepcion, Chile unable to walk.  I was the worst case in Chile.  So my parents uprooted themselves, leaving family, friends, and work situations, to come to California, specifically, close to Palo Alto so that I could undergo all the surgeries I need.  I grew up in a body cast, from my armpits to my toes, from the ages of 1 to 11.  I couldn’t walk, play or run, but if they flipped me over on the hospital gurney where I lived, I could play the piano.  To this day, I say that music healed my life.  

I underwent 11 major surgeries.  So, to answer your question, I think that because I grew up so restricted, now I just want to travel.  I call my body cast years, my cocoon years.  During that time, I grew my wings which now have allowed me to fly to 130 countries and counting.

So my first trip was from Chile to California.  Then, when I was 13, I won 1st Prize in the Houston Youth Symphony Competition which allowed me to attend the Aspen Music Festival.  As I had such a great time in Aspen, I worked really hard to be able to win the competition again, and this is how I ended up going to Aspen for 10 consecutive summers on a full fellowship.  

Although I travelled with my family back to Chile when I was 13, my first actual international trip as a result of my music was when I was 18.  I had won a monetary prize, and I used the money to go to Spain.  From then I was hooked and I think almost every year since then I have travelled to at least one new country.

After I graduated from Juilliard, I was fortunate enough to enter a quartet that already had management and a few 6 week tours with concerts every other night, or so.  We were part of what was then the touring arm of CAMY.  It was with this group that I learned to become a traveling musician.

My first international concerto date was with the Filharmonica de Santiago, in Chile the year I graduated from The Juilliard School.

What are some of your favorite memories of your years of performing and traveling abroad?

I only travel with my music.  For me a vacation is a stay-cation.  My favorite destinations are places where you can hear silence.  I find that in this modern city life, we live so detached from mother earth.  I need to listen and feel her sounds.  I find that I am almost allergic to any kind of motor sounds now.  I actually prefer candles to electricity.  I always unplug the refrigerator in hotel rooms.  I feel like I need to feel SILENCE in order to maintain a healthy, and inspired outlook.  For me, huge cities are like a cancerous growth.  I don’t think it is healthy for us to live in this way.  As a result, I prefer to stay away from huge cities.  I tired of touring the states long ago.  I now only seek concert dates in exotic countries as this is what brings me the most joy and a deep sense of excitement.

After playing five times in Carnegie Hall, and in such halls as, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in LA, Herbst Theater in San Francisco, Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, etc, I actually have a different kind of performance setting that I prefer.  My favorite places to perform have been in stimulating places, places that generate a sense of awe, and especially the Sacred Sites of the world.  Here are is a few sampling of my favorite places where I have played:  at the Pyramids in Giza in Egypt, the Pyramids in Teotihuacan in Mexico, The Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City (there is a concert hall inside!), Las Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, the Atacama desert, Petra in Jordan, the Amazon, Machu Picchu, and countless lakes, rivers, forests.

I think this is why I very much enjoy your music Suzanne.  You and I share this love of exotic sounds, and deep desire to meditate.  My daily goal is to maintain in a perpetual state of BLISS.  I feel very very thankful to be able to achieve this every day.

What types of concerts do you perform when you are at a country? 

Even though after I graduated from Juilliard, I felt perfectly manicured to play in an orchestra, I realized I didn’t want to go down that path.  It felt too restrictive for me.  After playing in the Houston Grand Opera, I definitely didn’t want to play in a pit ever again.  And after playing a bit with the New World Symphony, I realized I didn’t want to stay locked down anywhere.  I wanted to be free.  Thankfully, I entered my quartet and off I went traveling to all fifty states and abroad.  Nowadays, I play mainly concertos with orchestras, and play recitals.  I have taught Masterclasses in 61 international universities.

About 23 years ago, I was in an ensemble that was booked to perform in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, the tour was cancelled due to the dangerous political environment at the time. Have you ever felt in danger during any of your travels? 

I am very intrepid.  Some might say adventurous…. others might say naive.

Do you usually travel alone?

Yes, I usually travel alone although occasionally, my husband comes with me.  Through the years, we have been able to travel the world together.

What languages do you speak?

I know how to say the basics, “hello, how are you, thank you” in 37 languages.  I speak fluently in Spanish (my first language) and English.  I can get by in Italian and Portuguese and I speak a tiny bit of Hungarian.

How do you make the arrangements for these trips? They must involve a great deal of complex correspondences and travel arrangements and with language and cultural differences, it must get quite complicated!

Usually my agents make most of my arrangements.  Since I have agents in different parts of the world, they speak their local language and can set everything up for me.

You must be a very organized person to do all that you do.  Do you have suggestions and tips for flutists traveling and performing internationally?

I always have a suitcase ready to go so I can go on a moments notice.

I would say that jet lag is one of the most challenging things to deal with as a touring musician.  I wrote a blog post a bit ago with several tips with what I do to overcome jet lag quickly.  Sometimes, if I don’t stay long in a country, I don’t bother to adjust to the time difference.

With all of the traveling that you do, what do you do to keep healthy and rested and do you have tips on what to pack?

I pack everything with plastic baggies.  They become my “drawers” per say.  By now I have a system and I know exactly where everything is in my suitcase.

I always pre-order a vegan meal for my flights and I bring my own food as well.  While traveling, sometimes it is challenging, but I do try to find vegan meals across the globe.  It’s getting easier and easier!  Hotels usually have a work out room as it is equally important to maintain a fitness regime as well.

What countries do you have lined up to visit next?

I usually tour for 2 weeks and then I’m home for 2 weeks, alternating like this.  When I am at home, I teach at the University of California Santa Cruz, plus, I have my husband and family.  I have already toured 15 countries this year, but only 2 of them are new to me.  The rest have been repeats.  Coming up, I have more repeats:  Peru, Chile, Brazil, Barbados, Aruba, Jamaica, Cayman, and a few new places: Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao.

Social media has made it so much easier to experience your trips with you.  Thank you for sharing your videos with us all and for this interview!

Thank you, Suzanne!

Viviana jamming at the Bazaar in Bukhara

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