When Tan Dun won an Oscar in 2000 for his score to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he entered the realm of celebrity to which few classical composers have access. Now she is even a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador alongside Laura Bush and Princess Caroline of Hanover.
A celebrity indeed. Born in China in 1957 and living in the United States since 1986, he writes music that travels easily between cultures and eras. He willingly embraces the wide, maudlin exuberance of film music, but is equally at home in exploiting the traditions of the Western avant-garde or ancient Chinese rituals and instruments.
All these threads come together in his Passion of the Buddha, which had its UK premiere last night, conducted by Tan himself. It is a massive work requiring not only the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but also two mighty choirs (London Philharmonic and London Chinese Philharmonic) and six soloists, including a dancer who also played the pipa (a venerable Chinese lute-like instrument).
The 90-minute track draws the concept of “passion” from the Christian tradition of musical works (especially Bach) about the suffering and death of Christ. Here the story, in six episodes, focused on the path to Buddhist enlightenment. The text was in Chinese and Sanskrit (eloquent English subtitles were provided) while the music swung between West and East.
The program identified two vocal soloists as “indigenous”: soprano Sen Guo sometimes sang in the Peking Opera style, sometimes in a more Western idiom; while Batubagen played the xiqin (an almost extinct bow), accompanying his Mongolian singing with an overtone, an unusual sound combining both high and low timbres. Meanwhile, Western singers made occasional forays into overtones and hazy glissandi.
This may sound like a bit of a mishmash, and not everything worked: Yining Chen’s dance episode felt a bit pasted, even though the narrative logic worked. It was this logic that kept order; there was a real sense of storytelling through ritual, and the sung lines sometimes introduced characters, sometimes offered words of gnome wisdom: “The greatest music makes no sound” struck a certain chord, so to speak.
If that sounds ponderous, there were also moments of humor, including vocalized laughter and intricate verbal games with the numbers one through nine. For most of the show, the orchestra was the backing band, although the six drummers were busy throughout, sometimes hitting loudly, sometimes creating something more transparent, and even purely flowing in a few places; Tan knows how to make water sing.
Despite a few mistakes, the overall effect was cumulative, so the standing ovation that greeted the final silence felt like a collective release.