Macau International Music Festival

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The Macau International Music Festival is usually so heavy on opera and choral music that the territory’s two resident symphonic ensembles often get short shrift, but last weekend the festival’s two house bands each had showcase performances that brought them into the limelight.

Although the Macau Orchestra (pictured) began as an amateur chamber ensemble some 25 years ago, only in the past few seasons has it developed into a notable symphonic unit, frequently performing in Hong Kong and the mainland. The downside of that growth spurt, credited largely to the orchestra’s recently departed music director En Shao, is that its lush, string-heavy sound often makes the 45-player ensemble seem too bulky for classical repertory and too anaemic for heavier works.

So it was a pleasant surprise at St Dominic’s Church on Friday when the orchestra’s all-Mozart programme, which looked unpromising on paper, managed to balance that sonic fullness with a crucial sense of rhythmic flexibility. Music director Lü Jia has only been at the helm for a few weeks, but there was already more agility in this group than I have ever heard in it before.

This being Macau, vocal forces also shared the spotlight. The 20-member Hungarian-based Ars Nova Vocal Ensemble opened the evening with Ave Verum Corpus and closed the first half with Regina coeli. Sopranos Irini Kyriakidou and Sharon Zhai – both on loan from the festival’s upcoming production of Il Trittico – offered a superb contrast, with Kyriakidou’s burnished richness wholly colouring the Exsultate, jubilate and Zhai’s full-throated coloratura in the Regina coeli seamlessly fitting the orchestra’s dexterity with no resulting thinness in sound.

By the time the orchestra had the spotlight entirely to itself in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, the benefits of working with singers remained apparent in the orchestra’s lingering lyrical grace. Though the music unfolded entirely on symphonic terms, the vocal spirit still clearly hovered over the proceedings.

The Macau Chinese Orchestra’s performance the next night was another story entirely. A surprisingly large repertory for large ensembles of traditional Chinese instruments stretches back only a few decades, with popular pieces and more artistic works emerging largely from the same aesthetic. The difference relies on a broader range of timbre and greater range of interpretive depth, neither of which were present on the Macau Cultural Centre stage last Saturday.

Tang Jianping’s Golden Lotus Flower and excerpts from Kuan Nai Chung’s Bewitching Braid Suite, both commissioned for the orchestra and heard here in their world premiere, were heavily atmospheric, capturing a sense of place with a few minimal strokes. Both proceeded with elaborate extramusical narratives set in Macau (terms of the commission, most likely), but each lost that thread in the performance within minutes.

Two concertos without such overt storylines, Liu Changyuan’s pipa concerto Playing in Jest and Guo Wenjing’s dizi concerto Sorrowful, Desolate Mountain, were more poetically evocative, though there was often a tremendous gap between the superbly nuanced soloists (Zhang Qiang and Dai Ya, respectively) and the often abrasive honking from the orchestra. Peng Xiuwen’s frankly cinematic Terracotta Warriors Fantasia – essentially an Elmer Bernstein film score set in China – fared best, although at no point in the evening was there a sense that the musicians on stage played together as a unit on a regular basis.

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