Far from the city’s skyscrapers, the Hong Kong New Ensemble launched an ambitious dialogue on Sunday between cultures and artforms, embracing ritual both sacred and secular. First on the agenda (though last on the programme) was Anesti, an Easter cantata by the Hong Kong-based percussionist and composer James Boznos, commissioned in 2012 and receiving its belated world premiere.
St Joseph’s Chapel, a Unesco-protected site on Yim Tin Tsai island, is both Romanesque enough to inspire contemplation and minimalist enough not to impose its own terms – an ideal setting, in other words, for a 25-minute piece rooted in Greek Orthodoxy and obsessed with the number 12. Referencing both the Christian apostles and the tones of the chromatic scale, it also calls for 12 performers, equally divided between singers and instrumentalists.
In Anesti (the title means “Risen”), ancient Greek texts meet a modern compositional idiom, the bells of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (recorded on the composer’s iPhone) encountering technological enhancement. Live and recorded sounds are often synchronised, sometimes not, though under conductor John Winzenburg those moments when the musicians and Chamber Voices of the HKNME clearly separated modernity from tradition made their point most clearly.
Such recontextualisation was a recurring theme. A recording of Chan Hing-yan’s Adieu Sequence, a trio for sheng, viola and vibraphone (divorced both from its original visual accompaniment and the presence of live musicians), took on ethereal quasi-spirituality, with the Chinese sheng suggesting a western chapel organ. Tan Dun’s Autumn Wind, a spaciously textured lament from the composer’s early “George Crumb period”, evoked otherworldly ritual floating between Chinese and western roots.
The remaining dialogues took place firmly on western terms, with Kaija Saariaho’s Changing Light setting up stark contrasts between violinist Selena Choi’s lyrical playing and soprano Jasmine Law’s instrumental-like vocal lines. Georges Aperghis’s Rasch, by contrast, had violinist Choi and violist William Lane trading such similar musical material that their playing often sounded like a single instrument with an abnormally broad range.
Though the broad strokes of cultural exchange conceptually fell into place – Palm Sunday this year overlapped with Qingming, the Chinese ancestral grave-sweeping observance – the details often fell short. To neglect Saariaho’s English-language poetry and Tan’s Ming Dynasty texts, for example – as well as the original context of other pieces on the programme – kept some otherwise fine playing from becoming much of a genuine dialogue.