MUSA Chinese Baroque

By Roger Emanuels 

AN INNOVATIVE PROGRAM by the SF Bay Area ensemble MUSA illustrated the musical exchanges between Western Europe and China in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their “Chinese Baroque” concert for the Santa Cruz Chamber Players on March 16 was a history lesson in how the Jesuits tried, with little success, to bring Western music to the Chinese court. The Chinese were much more interested in learning about western advances in science and mathematics.

The concert brought to light many curious interactions between the cultures. The “Jesuit Mass in Beijing” by the French composer Charles d’Ambleville was written for the Jesuits to introduce Western music to the court. Three movements from the work opened the concert and featured Rita Lilly, soprano and Mindy Ella Chu, mezzo-soprano. This early Baroque convention of two parallel solo voices with supporting continuo became the preferred texture of the era. The instrumental ensemble consisted of Derek Tam, harpsichord; Addi Liu, viola; and Laura Gaynon, cello. The bowed strings were period instruments, historically typical of the early 17th century. Unfortunately, the acoustics at Christ Lutheran Church in Aptos limit the listening experience. In this case, high voices can be overpowering in the small space. The two soloists did not balance well and there were intonation issues.

A curious violin solo with harpsichord, “A Chinese Air,” published in 1756, was supposedly a literal transcription of a Chinese melody heard in London. It seemed to have more flavor of a highland dance than an Asian song. Addi Liu switched to violin to deliver this brief oddity.

Concert director and harpsichordist Derek Tam played a solo piece by Rameau, “Les Sauvages.” It was this music that the French missionary Amiot had played to entertain the Chinese court. The Kangxi Emperor reportedly was not impressed. The program notes indicate his response was “Our songs are not made for their ears, nor their ears for our songs.”

To introduce Chinese music that the missionaries might have heard, David Wong performed the traditional Chinese instruments guqin (7-string zither) and guzheng (Chinese table harp), both being versions of a plucked zither. Alone, these instruments have a quiet, soothing resonance. Each was featured in two classical Chinese tunes. Soloist Wong added another guqin melody, “Incantation of the Monk Pu’an,” reported to have been played by the Kangxi Emperor on harpsichord to impress the Jesuit missionaries.

Violinist Addi Liu played a sonata with continuo, one of twelve, which was the only Western-style music to have been composed in China. The composer, Teodorico Pedrini, was a missionary and private music tutor to the imperial court in Beijing. The five-movement work was highly engaging, especially with the rhythmic vitality of Liu and cellist Gaynon. The first movement sparkled with stylistic ornamentation.

The final work on the program combined Eastern and Western instruments in an arrangement of tunes collected by the aforementioned Amiot. David Wong joined the ensemble with the guzheng. The concert provided a fascinating view into the historical contact between two very foreign and different cultures.