Baroque music is all too rare in Asia. Several years ago when the Alliance Française of Macao decided to create a baroque music festival, supported by the Macau Foundation, it was clear that it would hold particular meaning here given that our beautiful city has one of the richest western baroque heritages in Asia. The French word “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “barroco”; here is our first connection to Portugal. In addition the word “barroco” means “a pearl of irregular shape”, and Macao is sitting on the delta of the Pearl River, our connection to China. Consequently, for its fifth edition the Baroque Music Festival is titled “Connecting Worlds”, to connect different cultures, people, and Macao’s heritage with beautiful music, over four concerts.
The opening concert of the BMF 2019 in the Cultural Centre small auditorium, was also a way for the Alliance Française to modestly celebrate the 70 year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Artists collaborated from different parts of China: the mainland, Hong Kong (including a French cellist from HK), two musicians from Macao Orchestra, and of course our local Macao-born star Kuokman Lio. Titled “The Four Seasons” it obviously refers to the well-known masterpiece by the Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi, more often heard as ring tones, hold music, or in a lift rather than live. The musicians also performed “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, which connected us to the 20th century and to France where Piazzolla studied composition with Nadia Boulanger.
An ensemble of fourteen musicians, conducted from the harpsichord by Maestro Lio, performed in front of a packed hall. One season by Vivaldi then the corresponding by Piazzolla back to back, emphasised both their differences and common material. Each season was performed by a different violin soloist which brought extra excitement to the night; four stunning talents and different personalities for a wide variety of colour.
The associate concertmaster of Macao Orchestra, Melody Wang, began with “Spring”. Her blossoming dress and warm sound supported by a secure technique immediately blew a refreshing breeze over the audience. A pure and simple interpretation, with an especially emotional second movement of the Piazzolla kept the audience alert and noiseless; compensated for with excited applause and cheering at the end.
Our second violinist, the Korean international soloist Yoojin Jang, was perfectly suited to “Summer”. Her firing personality and bright red dress, combined with a blazing technique brought heat into the hall. Her palpable physical energy and flamboyant ending triggered a close-to-hysterical response from the audience.
To have Quan Yuan, violinist at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, perform “Autumn” felt also like a wise choice. Nietzsche said “Autumn is more the season of the soul than nature” and his maturity, solid technique and steadiness contributed both calm and excitement to the evening.
Our last soloist was Amelia Chan, concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, to conclude this program with “Winter”. Reserved without being cold, her interpretation of this season was a fitting conclusion to this concert with an audience that kept asking for more.
The conductor and harpsichordist Kuokman Lio offered an encore of the last movement of “Summer” by Piazzolla. Even faster than earlier he left the air full of electricity. His conducting through the concert was discreet so as to give space to the soloists, while giving gestures and phrasing to the tutti parts, directing all the enthusiasm of the musicians together.
The second concert of the BMF was the following day in the Clube Militare. Much more intimate than the first, with the Macao String Quartet comprised of musicians from the Macao Orchestra, the venue and the music provided a more relaxed and peaceful environment. Titled “From Portugal to France” it was a way for the Alliance Française to connect to Macao’s Portuguese heritage and mark the 20th anniversary of its return to China. The program was a historical and geographical journey from the Portuguese Renaissance period, through the Spanish Pre-Baroque, to the French Baroque composer François Couperin with two pieces named “L’Espagnole” and “La Francaise”.
The final two concerts were our connection to France with the French-Swiss organist Vincent Thévenaz. He offered two different yet complementary programs, performed on the French-built but German Baroque-style pipe organ of Saint Joseph church. Mr Thévenaz is also an accomplished musicologist and his explanations between each piece were quite as interesting as his playing. For example he mentioned that the origin of the word “organ” comes from the Greek “organon” which means “the instrument” or “the ultimate instrument”. As the programs demonstrated the organ can express almost everything: from flute or oboe to a trumpet, the human voice, a bird (a cuckoo), even a full orchestra or a battle.
The first recital named “A Musical Journey Around 1600” was a rediscovery of the origin of this music. Starting with the earliest surviving music ever written for organ “Codex Robertsbridge”, from 1360, the sonorities plunged us into some forgotten times. The following works evolved to the pre-baroque era and could have been called “The Reborn Renaissance”, as our soloist revived this music with intelligence and freshness.
Finally the last concert, titled “Les Goûts Réunis” (The United Tastes), was a program around baroque music with various composers and schools that have influenced each other. There was also one piece by Astor Piazzolla, a man greatly influenced by Bach, which brought us full circle to the first concert of the festival. One of the highlights of this recital was the very last piece, an improvised concerto in the German Baroque style which beautifully encapsulated the BMF 2019. The first movement used two French tunes: “Frère Jacques” (Are You Sleeping Brother John) which is believed to have been composed by Rameau, and “Les Feuilles Mortes” (Autumn Leaves), an old French song composed in 1945; a light and somewhat humorous start to this concerto. The slow movement was improvised on a Portuguese theme from the Fado song “Verdes Anos” (The Time of Youth), expressively played and with nostalgia. Finally the last movement on a Chinese theme “Me and My Motherland” an oft-performed tune of late, was a grandiose finish, showing the extensive palette of this magnificent instrument.
The beautiful venue of the Saint Joseph church was a continual reminder of our great baroque heritage in Macao, and served as the perfect place to conclude this festival. David Rouault*
* David Rouault is a professional classical musician, part time wine consultant and full time wine lover, he’s also a board member of the alliance Française of Macao and artistic director of the Macau Baroque Music Festival.