Of the nearly 2,100 works to date commissioned by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, it’s safe to say that few are as ambitious as Jeffrey Ching’s Horologia sinica. Eschewing the usual historical or literary narratives, the Manila-born, Berlin-based Ching instead found inspiration in a handful of cultural artefacts – an ancient clock (the title of the piece is Latin for “Chinese clocks”), two odes from the classic Book of Songs, an emperor’s calligraphy – that he renders in strictly sonic terms.
At the piece’s premiere last Tuesday, five percussionists sustained mutually exclusive rhythmic patterns while modern Chinese string instruments (both plucked and bowed) occasionally clashed with a traditional wind section tuned to match Song Dynasty court instruments. Soprano Andión Fernández (the composer’s wife and frequent collaborator) performed the odes with archaic Chinese pronunciation, initially facing upstage with strong dramatic effect.
Classical Chinese references aside, the results carried a distinctly 20th-century American flavour, with Horologia sinica in most of its 20 minutes sounding rather like a determined synthesis of the microtonal, polyrhythmic experiments of Charles Ives and the ritualistic mash-ups of George Crumb, as if Ching had enlisted those two composers to help reconstruct his archeological finds. Conductor Yan Huichang led the piece with effective understatement, following with the evening’s interval to let Ching’s various strains resonate a bit longer.
The remaining works offered a broad, if more conventional, sampling across various Chinese cultures and backgrounds. Quan Jihao, a Beijing-born composer of Korean ethnicity, turned his Vein III – A Dialogue on Styles into a veritable etude of vibrato, where the Korean propensity for pulsating pitch is less an ornament than an essential component of a tone. Two movements of Lu Yun’s Music from the Mountain, a dizi (Chinese flute) concerto drawing on folk tunes from her native Taiwan, opened with plaintive instrumental sighs from soloist Lie Chen-ling before erupting into a frenzy of stamping and vocalising in the orchestral ranks.
The remaining works, Ng Cheuk-yin’s sheng concerto The Seventh Month and Chew Hee-chiat’s Orchestra Suite No 2 both focused on instrumental colour, though in thoroughly opposite ways. While Ng’s concerto (with the composer himself as soloist) looked inward, essentially turning the orchestra into an overgrown version of the sheng, Chew’s Suite, written in 2000, revelled in extroverted brilliance, revealing the most vivid orchestration of the evening.