Oriental taster not enough to satisfy

2 June 2022

HIP Company’s ‘Chinoiserie’ is a wonderful blend of Western and traditional Chinese instruments but the lack of a true cultural intersection leaves Tiffany Ha wanting something more.

HIP Company, “Chinoiserie”·
Perth Town Hall, 28 May 2022 ·

HIP (Historically Informed Performance) Company’s “Chinoiserie” was a pleasant and intimate soiree, suitably set at Perth Town Hall. This local Baroque music collective, founded and directed by Krista Low (cello), Sarah Papadopoulos (violin) and Bonnie de la Hunty (soprano) have been offering what they describe as “approachable and eclectic performances” around Perth since 2020.

The concept behind “Chinoiserie” was, broadly, “East meets West” and, specifically, a fusion-inspired tasting plate of pieces born from the exchange between Western Europe and China over the last few centuries.

The program featured arrangements of pieces by Teodorico Pedrini and Joseph-Marie Amiot – European missionaries who taught music in Beijing in the 18th century. The opening selections showcased the skills of Marlene Crone and Papadopoulos, and both violinists had very different but lovely approaches to tone and vibrato. I enjoyed the cascading arpeggios and sensuous pitch bends of Teresa Tan’s ghuzeng. The instrument sounded like a harp but with more “twang”. The yangqin, played by Stella Huang, had a sweeter, mellower, almost piano-like tone, and handled the chromaticism of Baroque instrumental music well. Both guest musicians were true masters of their instruments and fitted in seamlessly with the rest of the ensemble.

The novel combination of de la Hunty’s soprano voice, Low’s cello and Tan’s guzheng worked wonderfully on Yan Guo Sheng and I was impressed by how well the harpsichord (played by James Huntingford) paired with the yangqin in a reimagined version of Couperin’s Les Chinois, a piece that is considered “peak” Chinoiserie

Soprano Bonnie de la Hunty with, from left, Krista Low (cello), James Huntingford (harpsichord) and Marlene Crone (violin). Photo: Artshoot Media

Chinoiserie is an aesthetic popularised by Western European artists who take aspects of Chinese (or more broadly, Asian and “oriental”) culture and appropriate them into Western forms, creating something exotic that is still palatable to Western tastes. This is problematic because it reduces a whole “other” culture to symbols and tropes, which create and perpetuate stereotypes. This art is not truly representative; it does not acknowledge the labour or complex histories of the people and places it was inspired by.

Personally, I felt HIP Company glossed over these problematic elements in this performance. Yes they had “reimagined” these pieces with traditional Chinese instruments and Chinese performers, but they still gave airtime to the composers who wrote them. And in my opinion, this concert was perpetuating “orientalism” by presenting this program as Baroque music with an oriental flavour.

The performances were exceptional, as they always are from HIP, and the music was pleasant enough, but I was left with an uncomfortable feeling.

Is this what passes for serious cultural exchange in 2022? This is not a criticism that is limited to this one concert from HIP – as I said, I have the utmost respect for the musicians involved. But shouldn’t we strive for something more meaningful, for our artists and companies to go deeper when it comes to conversations around race and culture rather than just pluck a few morsels from the tasting plate?

I am not suggesting that every artist should, but when they claim to be exploring “fascinating intersections while holding … representations to account”, I don’t want it to be docile, pretty or inoffensive. I want to see them walk the walk – through all the muddy, unknown, scary, uncomfortable parts in a way that reflects the real world.

HIP Company’s next performance is “Let Us Dance” at Government House Ballroom on 27 August 2022.

Pictured top: The ‘Chinoiserie’ performers, from left, Teresa Tan (guzheng), Krista Low (cello), James Huntingford (harpsichord), Bonnie de la Hunty (soprano), Marlene Crone (violin), Sarah Papadopoulos (violin) and Stella Huang (yangqin). Photo by Artshoot Media

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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