Dun and the riverrun
09/29/2000 - and 30 September, 1 October
Johan Sebastian Bach Cello suite no. 4
George Crumb Sonata for solo cello
Tan Dun Tan Dun Water Passion after St Matthew
Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Todd Reynolds (violin), Stephen Bryant (baritone), Elizabeth Keusch (soprano)
Tan Dun (conductor)
Edgar Varèse Déserts, video by Bill Viola
Tan Dun The gate
Zehua Zhang (puppeteer), Nancy Allen Lundy (soprano), Shi Min (Peking opera actress)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre André Valade (conductor) Tan Dun (conductor)
Tan Dun‘s Fire crossing water festival at the Barbican is a celebration of the experience of the conjunction of things that do not touch each other but still together add a spiritual dimension. Fire and water, life and death, different musical and cultural traditions, but also especially the different senses, all cross in unique moments. At his best, Dun offers an attractive route in to Buddhist ways of thought, but his work can also be shamelessly east-west crossover, verging on muzak. His selections this weekend were closer to the sublime, with his own works ingeniously illuminated by the radical classicism of Bach and Bill Viola.
Yo-Yo Ma performed Bach‘s fourth suite for solo cello, normally felt to be bumptious if not bombastic, as if he were working ecstatically on a set of koans. The cello, of course, is an instrument that opens the way for a vast range of possibilities, dramatic, tonal and textural, and Bach’s writing takes the player and instrument through most of them within the limits of a strict (though expressive) set of forms and standard technique. Ma preferred the open approach, with his cello away from his body, supported only by his hand as he ran the music through space and time, pushing each movement in a contrasting direction but always firmly based in the physical space of himself and his instrument. George Crumb’s solo suite, a late romantic thrash, was enjoyable but seemed limited by comparison.
Tan Dun‘s Water passion after St Matthew, in the second part of Saturday‘s concert, was explicitly in homage to Bach’s St Matthew passion in that it had a chorus, four voices (baritone, soprano, solo cello and solo violin) and a passion theme. But its dramatic shape was actually closer to that of the cello suites: six episodes, starting with the baptism of Jesus and the temptation in the desert, and ending with the resurrection, each had a simple micro-structure with its own closure. The more dramatic episodes in the gospel text disappeared, so that Jesus prophesied that Judas would betray him and Peter would deny him, but the events themselves were not depicted, and the proxies for human guilt were missing. Instead, the theme of water ran through the work, represented in the voices by the clear narrative of the baritone who represents Christ, beautifully sung in all but an impossible lower register by Stephen Bryant.
The music itself was at times loud and repetitive, in orientalizing crossover mode, but the production, clearly devised as an integral part of the work, was stunning. On the stage was a cross formed from glass bowls, like Christian baptismal fonts, full of water. Percussion players at three ends of the cross used their lit water as part of the music. Dun, conducting, was at the fourth end of the cross. The violin player and baritone were in the quarter to his left, and the soprano and cellist to his right. The choir was in the other two quarters of the cross. The performance took place with the auditorium and often the stage in darkness except for spotlights. At the end, the choir, instrumentalists and conductor moved gradually to the fonts and ran the water through their hands as the lights died away, with breathtaking effect.
Tan Dun‘s The gate, performed on Sunday night, tackled another key form of western music drama, the operatic scena. Three heroines dying for love, each from a different tradition, tell their stories before the judge of the dead (played by Dun from the podium) to justify rebirth. (The scenario has echoes, presumably accidental, of Powell and Pressburger’s A matter of life and death, and possibly deliberate of the classical subgenre of the heroine in Hades.) Again, the performances were probably the main point. The puppeteer, Zehua Zhang, representing an eighteenth-century Japanese seemed less at home in the format, but the Chinese opera actress Shi Min and Nancy Allen Lundy as Shakespeare’s Juliet, with Monteverdian recitative, were divas to perfection.
The first part of the concert, though, was the high point of the festival, although it did not involve Dun. Varèse’s Déserts was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with a specially devised film and video by Bill Viola. Déserts, composed in 1954, is also a work whose performance matters. The first work broadcast in stereo on French radio, it consists of four orchestra sections interspersed with interludes of electronically generated music. There is a contrast in textures between the two modes, but it is a subtle one and the intended effect -- as Bill Viola suggested in an interesting, though well-rehearsed discussion -- seems to be more the wonder of music coming from nowhere when the orchestra stops playing.
Viola’s film presented images of landscapes, of water, sky, mountains and rocks, always without a human presence (except for a mysterious truck dimly visible on a rainy road) and austerely beautiful. There is no hint of the melodrama or busyness of Koyana’aqatsi, and only one small gesture of Disneyism, confessed by Viola in the discussion, as lightning strikes a mountain twice in synchronisation with the music. The electronic interludes were accompanied by an image of a man in a room, whose "inner landscape" or desert of loneliness is formed by the other images. At the end, the visual effect of the images in the room merge with those of the landscapes as the man pours water in slow motion and a glass smashes geologically.