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Games of TŌNs

New York
Rose Theater, Lincoln Cemter
05/21/2023 -  
Tan Dun: Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem – Passacaglia: Secret of the Wind and Birds
Grigoras Dinicu: Ciocârlia
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (Suite)

Yida An (Violin), Milad Daniari (Bassist)
The Orchestra Now, Tan Dun (Conductor)

T. Dun (© Patrick Arias)

The double‑bass? A dangerous rogue elephant!”
Charles Villiers Stanford, The Music Lover’s Companion

The music soars within the little lark/And the lark soars.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Those who denied themselves a light breezy New York Sunday afternoon for a concert of heavy classical music might have disappointed with The Orchestra Now (TŌN). They experienced instead a concert of joy, levitation, even levity. In other words–and don’t misunderstand–this was music which summoned up sheer entertainment.

Not that conductor-composer Tan Dun had created “light” music. The orchestra of TŌN, once a Bard grad student group, is now a huge ensemble, with a gorgeous pantheon of first chair players. The soloists ran the gamut–literally–from violin to double‑bass.


How was it done? The late Romanian violin virtuoso wrote little. But Grigoras Dinicu’s Ciocârlia (The Lark) was, like George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody, a celebration in rhythm and theme of the country’s Roma (Gypsy) and Romanian tradition. (A frequent visitor, I discovered that the Romanians despised Roma people with the same depth that they loved Roma music.)

This was rhapsody with a twist. It started with two panpipes, with a violin–in fact, the violin soloist, virtuoso Yida An–strolling down the aisle of the Rose Theater, playing his instrument, bow bouncing off the strings with a semi‑improvisatory swing.

Once on the stage, China‑born Yida An created his own lark ascending, with far more homage to Enescu than Vaughan Williams. This was not a dark knock‑’em ‑dead Romantic virtuosity. Hardly ever in the six‑minute did his bow play heavily on the strings. The tempos were Romanian, the themes were from the countryside–but the sounds were of the lark soaring or ascending... or whatever Yida An did to keep the sliding, gliding sounds glittering with bird‑ish buoyancy.

Tan Dun took immediate control of TŌN, and his bond with his orchestra was tight and cohesive.

As a composer, Tan Dun can appropriately be called a symphonic syncretist. I first heard him in the Hong Kong premiere of his opera Marco Polo, and while musically not totally impressive (even with Yo Yo Ma as soloist), I was vastly impressed how the composer instinctively brought together melodies of Han Chinese, Tibetan, Manchurian and Western. In face, unlike other composer who attempt this, Tan Dun’s efforts were seamless.

His first work this afternoon was saddled with title Contrabass Concert: Wolf Totem, named for a 2004 novel by Jiang Rong written in the year of the Concerto premiere in the Netherlands.

That novel portrays (say the program notes), “the extinction of the Mongolian wolf along with Mongolian way of life.” And this was Tan Dun, the master syncretist. Within the three movements, he included melodies from North China, the galloping sounds of the Golden Horde mounts. This along with a replica of the morin khur, the ancient Mongol two‑string horse‑hair viol.

M. Daniari/Y. An (© The Orchestra Now)

Yes, this was a concerto, yet it broke the concerto rules. Contrabass soloist Iranian-born Milad Daniari made the most of it. His one short cadenza and his intermittent virtuoso segments seemed to be handled well enough. But Tan Dun was writing an atmospheric picture.

The opening contrabass movement began less the image of the sunlit grasslands, more the Stygian darkness of ancient times, starting with a reflection of Tibetan glass bowls, then played with the slow mournful solos at the high registers, like the sounds of a North Chinese song. This continued with “horse‑gallop” sounds. Yes, they resembled the rhythms of the Rossini overture, but the rhythms allowed Mr. Daniari to parade his technique.

The slow movement was probably moving enough, and the melody was certainly Asian style. But the idea of a lone wolf mourning for its mate was a bit hokey, compared with the galloping tempos of the finale. One had to admire Mr. Daniari giving such color to his instrument, along with Tan Dun’s originality.

Yet originality only begins to explain the composer’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds. Here the audience was invited–commanded?–to adjust their Iphones to produce an auditorium-wide chorus of birdsong. An aleatory avian choir of chirps and peeps and tweets. Granted Einojuhani Rautavaara produced exactly the same avianition in his Cantus Arcticus. But that started with an equally vociferous chorus of birds from a tape recording. Tan Dun’s effort called for electronic sounds filling the whole Rose Hall–as well as TŌN using their own electronic sounds as a kind of ritornello.

The composer followed the rules of his form studiously, with a brassy theme and four variations. Yet there were the most affable variations, with brasses, rhythmic fluctuations, harp and French horn solos and the entire ensemble joining in a beautifully crafted divertimento.

Was this deep? Profound? Worthy of explication? Hardly. But it utterly fit the afternoon moods.

TŌN finished with Firebird Suite and Tan Dun used both stick and hand to get the best from his players. Technically they worked well. It was hardly a great performance, simply because The Orchestra Now lacked the broad coloring of their profession colleagues. Every instrument came in on time, the tempos were correct. But this was less an exotic fairyland tapestry than a series of first‑class artists showing their individual talents under a discerning leader.

Harry Rolnick



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