News Column

Pop-ups and perspiration: Meeting challenges in Macau

June 1, 2014

By David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer

June 01--MACAU -- Music amid the ruins.

The idea is so picturesque that the Philadelphia Orchestra, now in its third visit here, has had a standing date with what's left of St. Paul's Cathedral. Built by Portuguese Jesuits starting in 1582, the cathedral suffered a fire in 1835 that rendered it only a poetic husk of itself -- and made it one of Macau's central attractions.

On Saturday morning, a quartet of the orchestra's French hornists played a pop-up concert as part of the 2014 China Residency and Tour of Asia. They offered a selection of John Williams, Sousa, and Weber on the plaza facing the 66 steps leading to the church's facade.

"This was the first Western outpost in Asia," said Ambassador Nicholas Platt, a key figure in the history of Sino-American relations and a fixture on recent China tours. "The Portuguese consider themselves to be the pioneers of cultural exchange. And that's why we're able to be here."

The plaza was swarming with tourists, the missionary spirit of the place still alive among vendors selling hot-pink shopping bags printed with "Jesus Loves You" in English and Chinese.

The quartet arrived amid delighted applause and much camera activity. But halfway into the first selection on what had been a cloudy day, the sun emerged, the temperature seemed to rise 20 degrees in a few seconds, and much of the audience immediately sought shade.

It was a tough gig.

Listeners trickled back with sun parasols, a fixture in this tropical climate. The Venetian -- the lavish Italian-flavored gambling and shopping complex that is hosting the orchestra here -- had four parasol-holders (all dressed like gondoliers) waiting to shield the hornists so they could continue, which they did for nearly half an hour.

"Everyone was perspiring quite a bit, so the instrument was sliding around on our faces in ways you're not used to," hornist Michael Thornton said. "The challenge of any touring situation is that you're ready to go when it's time to play and represent the orchestra. It's a great honor and responsibility. But you can only do what you do."

As much as Macau can seem inhospitable to Western classical music at times, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. Assistant conductor designate Lio Kuokman, who was born here, was inspired to become a conductor by a Macao Symphony Orchestra performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 2. He was 4 at the time (28 years ago), and such concerts sustained him throughout his boyhood.

Meanwhile, in the casino district, the Venetian Theater, built for the likes of Cirque de Soleil, is no longer the hopeless acoustical black hole it was on the orchestra's 2013 visit. The amplification system was so radically upgraded that genuine symphonic experiences are now possible.

Installed by Meyer Sound of Berkeley, Calif., the Constellation System placed microphones and loudspeakers every few feet around the stage, creating what project director John Pellowe calls "an electronic shell canopy" on a stage that has no physical semblance of one. Refinements and adjustments were achieved with a laptop.

"I'm not envisioning this replacing the [unamplified] concert hall," said the orchestra's audio producer, Charles Gagnon, "but for certain applications it's an efficient, cost-effective tool to achieve a large number of goals."

So this tour has been anything but business as usual, with the complexities of Tan Dun's multimedia Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Woman (which will also be part of the orchestra's Saratoga season this year) and one venue after another posing a challenge, whether logistical or acoustical.

Asked how many of the concerts have put him outside his comfort zone, music director Yannick NÉzet-SÉguin said: "Every one. But that's a big part of who I am -- making the best out of any circumstances. If the leader isn't positive about these things, the morale goes a different way. Part of me is enjoying this challenge. In Salzburg when they gave me different players in Don Giovanni, I sort of thrived on it."

Odd as that sounds, one heard that quality in Saturday's side-by-side concert with the Macao and Philadelphia orchestras. NÉzet-SÉguin's less-driven tempos in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 seemed to accommodate the Macao musicians, with somewhat less airborne results. But with the grittier, hefty sound of the combined orchestras, the final movement built more effectively than any previous Tchaikovsky performance on this tour.

That full programs of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky replaced last year's intermissionless, medium-weight, 90-minute concerts at the Venetian is a clear sign of evolution.

"Last year, my impression was that the concerts were timed so that people weren't kept away from the gaming tables too long," Platt said. "And now, this is the full monty."


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