Macau Chinese Orchestra, St Dominic’s Church, Macau – review

As both a modern casino Mecca and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Macau has a complex colonial history and an even more complicated relationship with China. Since its return in 1999, the former Portuguese territory has worked hard to cultivate ties with the Motherland while at the same time stressing its singularity.

That strategy goes some way towards explaining the Macau Chinese Orchestra’s programme on Wednesday at the Macau Arts Festival. Against the backdrop of St Dominic’s Church, a 1587 structure that was a key part of the city’s restoration in the 1990s, the orchestra offered the world premiere of a triptych of pieces for voices and traditional Chinese instruments by three composers highly promoted in Beijing.

If anything linked these works – other than texts by the Mainland writer Dong Fangfang referencing historic names and nicknames of Macau – it was a juxtaposition of traditional minzu, a distinctly Chinese vocalism mixing traditional folk singing and western bel canto, with a more contemporary approach to instrumentation. Where Hao Weiya’s Lotus Island unfolded with smooth, bitonal lyricism, Li Binyang’s Jinghai spun a conscious clash of timbres, with harp, double basses and western percussion often grinding against a united front of Chinese winds and strings. Liu Changyuan’s Barra, responding to Macau’s various religions, offered a rather Verdian sense of spirituality, though Liu’s meditative stretches and quasi-operatic punctuations reflected a more modern harmonic language.

In contrast to these intriguing, if touristic, glimpses of Macau, conductor Pan Ka Pang opened the evening with a handful of works by Father Aureo da Costa Nunes e Castro (1917-93), a Portuguese-born composer and longtime educator in Macau. If not as technically accomplished as the Chinese offerings, Castro’s works at least offered a more authentic mix of Macau’s sensibilities. His Coeli Enarrant Gloriam Dei was both musically and liturgically pleasing, like a pentatonic Palestrina; Menina de Olhos Verdes fitted Luís de Camões’s text to playful rhythms and extended harmonies reminiscent of Poulenc.

It was Castro’s Te Deum, though, that encapsulated the territory’s breadth of influences in a single stroke. As Macau’s Perosi Choir and Academia de Música S. Pio X rendered the text in tasteful modernist sonorities, the orchestra revealed effective and pragmatic instrumentation: by combining its soprano, alto and bass models, the sheng (a traditional reed instrument) offers a fair representation of a liturgical organ.

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