Music Review | Quintessentially Baroque

Part I – Once forgotten, now recollected

The story of Baroque is a perpetual one, as told by past and present editions of the Baroque Music Festival. The 2018 edition began with an illuminating concert at the Macau Military Club, the same venue where the 2017 edition drew to a memorable close with a poignant rendition of Stabat Mater, Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) magnum opus. Aptly named “The Forgotten Celebrated Composers”, the opening concert juxtaposed timeless masterpieces by household names such as Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with equally fine works by lesser-known composers, including Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730), Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Michel Corrette (1707-1795) and Antoine Dauvergne (1713-1797).

The ebbs and flows of musical popularity can be understood backwards, but hardly predicted forwards. For much of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach remained a small town figure, unbeknownst to the wider world; in Britain during the 60s and 70s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) music was considered ambient and easy listening. The passage of time did help separate weed from wheat, but some of the latter was inadvertently discarded in the process. Displaying a carefully and purposefully selected programme, the opening concert effectively set the tone for the entire festival, with discovery and enlightenment at its heart, delivered by a string quartet comprising senior members of Macao Orchestra: Melody Wang (violin), Vít Polášek (violin), Xiao Fan (viola) and Lu Yan (cello).

Part II – Protestant north versus Catholic south

Arguably the most exquisite church in Macao, St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church is a well-hidden gem, so much so that even local residents could lose their bearings in finding the Spanish Steps-like entrance. The seminary and church were established in 1728 and 1758 respectively, indeed at the height of the Baroque era, and remain the only one in Macao to be installed with a Baroque organ. The second concert, “Händel and Bach – An Italian Inspiration”, compared and contrasted the divergent styles and mutual influences of organ compositions from the Catholic south and Protestant north as exemplified by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Performing from the gallery, the critically acclaimed French trio comprising Héloïse Gaillard (recorder & baroque oboe), Tami Troman (violin) and Pierre Cambourian (organ) conjured up an intimate atmosphere by filling the entire space with melodic warmth. Conspicuously absent was any hint of ostentatiousness or superfluousness, just three instruments at any given time, with the organ being caressed with utmost tenderness. Sitting in a seminary church in the first Roman Catholic Diocese in the Far East, one could not help glancing at the ornate interior, which would have been condemned by the puritanical Martin Luther (1483-1546), yet there was nothing out of place when Protestant music was played in a Catholic church. The wars of religions, it appears, now exist only in the form of imaginary battles pitting German organ schools against their Italian counterparts.

Part III – Reverse Chinoiserie or Europerie?

Unlike Georg Friedrich Händel, a celebrity in Georgian London who led a comfortable life, Johann Sebastian Bach gained reputation only posthumously. Meanwhile, a self-taught composer and multi-instrumentalist, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was well-known in his day, and easily one of the most prolific composers of all time. The three German masters were contemporaries, knew one another personally, and their works were often mentioned in one breath, although Georg Philipp Telemann seems to have the least stardust today. With brio and gusto, the Amarillis trio consisting of Héloïse Gaillard (recorder & baroque oboe), Tami Troman (violin) and Brice Sailly (harpsichord) presented “Handel and Telemann – Virtuosic Voyage” at the 19th century Mandarin’s House, transforming the venue into a melting pot of distinct cultures from various eras.

Combining elegance with entertainment, the chamber music pieces were succinct and tasteful, at times so minimalist that they resembled a pristine stream of flowing water, a recurrent motif in Chinese ink wash paintings, not without a certain Taoist overtone. More instruments would render the performance less ethereal, and yet fewer would not be possible. It was the ultimate reverse Chinoiserie experience, or perhaps Europerie at the photogenic residence of a prominent scholar-official; in an instant, the harpsichord seemed like the long-lost brother of guqin (plucked seven-
string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family), as both are prized for their intellectuality and spirituality. It was a delightful afternoon of cultural immersion by all accounts, eliciting genuine smiles and subconscious nods from the audience.

Part IV – Deo optimo maximo

As a performance art, music is no doubt best appreciated live, but since attending live performances every day is out of the question, digital concert halls, CD recordings and Youtube clips, for all their imperfections, are serviceable substitutes. Having said that, no instrument loses more vitality and suffers worse than the organ in recordings, for one simple reason – shockwaves are physical rather than sonic, and hence cannot be recorded (yet). In short, nothing could imitate, even remotely, the experience of listening to organ live.

The penultimate concert of the festival was an absolute tour de force, total coup de maître by decorated organist Pierre Cambourian. This is one contemporary master who has produced numerous documentaries and recordings, in addition to playing the organ in a televised Pontifical Mass at Place des Invalides during Benedict XVI’s papal visit in September 2008. “Baroque Organ Recital” at St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church was the purists’ dream come true, presenting some of the finest organ compositions by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and Johann Sebastian Bach.

If well executed, music played by any instrument can be intellectual and spiritual, but none physically attacks and shocks the audience as the organ does. Its complexity and versatility rival if not surpass those of an entire orchestra’s, all the while manifesting absolute authority and majesty. Playing with all four limbs incessantly, the organist was barely visible from the audience; he became a vicar of God, at least temporarily. In a more modern sense, he was akin to a pilot in an Airbus A380 cockpit, sitting in front of a mind-boggling set of control panels, taking his passengers on a musical journey.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ compositions are not tempestuous Italian fireworks, but Gothic architecture set in melodies rather than stone. Their intricacy is limitless, like a kaleidoscope wherein multiple elements lead to an infinite number of inch-perfect patterns reminiscent of Islamic geometry. Centuries before the emergence of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), apparently Johann Sebastian Bach has already conceived the precursor to the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, at least within an ecclesiastical setting. For many a Christian, his music provides irrefutable evidence that God exists.

Part V – Past, present and future

As hallmarks of the Baroque era – knee breeches, powdered wigs, tricornes and well-placed beauty marks – were ridiculed subsequent to the French Revolution, so was Baroque music disregarded during the Romantic era. It was not until the 2nd half of the 20th century that it saw a renaissance spearheaded by the rise of historically informed performances, period instruments, specialised ensembles and elite countertenors. Baroque music hails from the past, is in rude health today and will likely grow from strength to strength in the foreseeable future. With this in mind, the last concert of the festival, “Baroque for the Future”, took place at Place Vendôme at The Parisian Macao.

Compositions by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), Jean-Baptiste Lully, Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Johann Sebastian Bach were interpreted by Future of Baroque Brass Ensemble, led by professional musicians. The programme began with late Renaissance / proto-Baroque pieces by Italian Catholics headed by Claudio Monteverdi, and ended with the zenith of Baroque works by the German Protestant in Johann Sebastian Bach.

The one-upmanship of history is as enthralling as any operatic plot. As Protestant Reformation was initiated by Martin Luther in the fateful year of 1517, Catholic Counter-Reformation began following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which resolved that art should be able to communicate religious ideas in a direct and emotional manner, hence the birth of Baroque music. The pole position of Italian baroque music was soon fiercely contested by German Protestants, who nurtured not only a litany of composers and instrumentalists, but also the predecessors of some of the oldest orchestras still in existence today.

Alongside William Bascaule, Director of Alliance Française de Macao, David Rouault and Sa Ng have spent countless hours organising the festival in their respective capacities as Artistic Director and Cultural Affairs Manager; they have also given talks before, during and after each concert. When an opportunity arose – as it did at the last concert – for them to showcase what they do best, the two did not hesitate to brandish their brass weapons onstage. Jacky I. F. Cheong, MDT

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