Photo by Craig SchwartzGURGLE
Tan Dun flows endlessly on. The week that brought his Water Passion After St. Matthew to Disney Hall through the admirable efforts of Grant Gershon’s Master Chorale was also adorned by recent releases on Deutsche Grammophon DVD of two other major Tan works of high liquidity. One is Tea, an opera concerned with that beverage in its mythic significance to Tan’s own countrymen and their neighboring Japanese. The other is The Map, which is something of an audio/video voyage through Chinese geography and dance ritual morphed into a cello concerto, performed in this instance outdoors in a river village with adoring thousands on the banks, bathed in the pretty music and the words of self-adoration by its returning musical hero. In his nearly 20 years since fleeing the restrictive musical outlooks of his native China for the cultural liberation of the West, Tan Dun has not yet acquired all the skills of a first-rank composer, but he has certainly learned how to behave like one. Tan was one of the several composers who broke out of artistic bondage at the end of China’s “cultural revolution.” He came to New York in 1986 and seemed from the start awesomely adept in turning his Chinese background into both music and publicity. His interviews, including one or two that I’ve done, rattle on eloquently about a boyhood deprived of real music, finding messages in stones and sticks and the gurgling of water; so each of the three big pieces noted above and most everything else — including his Concerto for Paper Instruments, scheduled for the Philharmonic on April 28 — becomes yet another chapter in a Tan Dun audio-biography. Moments in the Water Passion, in fact, that did not involve stones and water and primitive percussion and vocal effects, but merely lyrical passages for chorus and instruments, were by far the evening’s dullest. Water Passion was one of four contemporary interpretations of the biblical Passion narrative (of which J.S. Bach himself had set two) commissioned by Helmuth Rilling and his International Bach Academy in 2000 for that composer’s 250th death anniversary. Four distinctive works eventuated: Wolfgang Rihm’s intensely Bachian; Sofia Gubaidulina’s ancient-Slavic-ritualistic; Osvaldo Golijov’s dazzling-Latino; and this of Tan Dun, most remote by far in its influences and certainly — with its assemblage of bowls of water and primitive and symphonic percussion, but also two solo strings, two vocalists, chorus and synthesizer — the most bizarre in sound. Matthew’s words are denied the harrowing flow of Bach’s setting; they go forward in short, disconnected soundbites, more as memory devices than as narration. The music, too, proceeds as a series of short explosions, a sequence of musical events not clearly related. The range of devices is vast and impressive; the vocalists — soprano Elizabeth Keusch and baritone Stephen Bryant in the Disney performance — are called upon to create, among other gullet tighteners, the extreme ranges of Tibetan “throat singers.” On its primitive level, the music builds at times to shattering and chilling climaxes: best of all the moment of the stoning of Jesus by the crowds at the Trial, when all 63 members of the Master Chorale broke out their handfuls of clickety-clack flat stones. Oh yes, the water. Tan’s Water Passion actually begins with chapters in Matthew several before Bach’s text, allowing the image of water as unification: baptism at the start, tears at the end, and a nice, drippy memento mori along the way. The end is in darkess, with 17 players stationed at that many bowls, spattering, dripping, sloshing and — after 95 intermissionless minutes — delivering a measure of agony to many an elderly prostate out front unreached by the compassion of St. Matthew.
The music for Tea is by Tan, and he also co-wrote the libretto (with Xu Ying). Given its contemporary provenance, this is a rather attractive reconstruction of what we know — or what we want to know — about musical theater back in the 17th century in the inscrutable East. Its plot involves a rivalry; two men — one a Chinese prince, one a Japanese monk — struggle to prove the verity of the book on the meanings behind the traditional Tea Ceremony, for which the ancient Tea Sage must be located in a distant land. Lest this suggest a certain flimsiness of story substance, be reassured that there is plenty, including blood and weeping at the end. The opera was created for Tokyo’s Suntory Hall and the Netherlands Opera; it is also listed for the San Francisco Opera in 2006. The Netherlands’ Pierre Audi — who gave us that fabulous Monteverdi Ulysses some years back — directed, creating in what is basically a concert hall a remarkable stage setting with a few large planks laid at angles; let that be a lesson to whoever next tries to stage stuff at Disney. Somehow, this work comes across with a fullness of musical language that I find lacking in much of Tan’s work, including the Water Passion. He seems to know the peculiarities of Chinese vocal lines, the sinuous turns, the glottal punctuations, the strange shadings created by indigenous vowel sounds. His singers — two of them Chinese, three not — form a homogeneous ensemble, as does the usual mix of stones, water, etc., plus, this time, a full-size orchestra under Tan’s leadership. All told, I find this one of Tan’s closest-to-successful large-scale works, moving and rather beautiful. I also find it the one least affected by the “international” influences that have befallen him since his arrival in America. Perhaps someone should have confiscated his green card when there was time. Even without the “Aren’t you lucky that I’ve come back to you” hometown bushwa of the DVD of The Map, this is pure hokum: a piece that sets a solo cello to wailing Chinese operatic laments (Yo-Yo Ma in the Boston Symphony premiere, Anssi Karttunen on the DVD) against orchestral outbursts and Chinese travel movies on screens all around. I yield to nobody in my admiration for old National Geographics, and for Anssi Karttunen’s skill as a cellist, but I haven’t yet been able to get all the way through this piece of misguided entertainment, and am not sure I ever will.

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