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The Composer as Icon and Master

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
10/26/2009 -  
Tan Dun: Concerto for Six – Secret Land for Orchestra and 12 Violoncelli – Silk Road – Violin Concerto, “The Love” (World Premiere)
Jennifer Zetlan (Soprano), Michael Truesdell (Percussion) Samuel Budish, Andrew Funcheon, Jeremy Smith, Andrew Stenvall, Robert Kistler (Percussion and Timpani), Cho-Liang Lin (Violin)
Juilliard Orchestra, Tan Dun (Conductor)

Tan Dun (© Nana Watanabe)

Tan Dun is not only the most renowned composer from the People’s Republic of China, but the only composer internationally known. Others, like Bright Sheng, might have as much talent, but none are as prodigious, eclectic and surprising as Mr. Dun.

Living in Hong Kong during the 1990’s, I heard Mr. Dun’s early music, using objects (paper and water), integrating Chinese , Mongolian and Tibetan music. True, his massive Marco Polo opera was diminished by a too complex libretto (philosophy and opera are oil and water), but his fame was increasing.

Instead of being the “token” Chinese composer, Tan Dun was going full speed ahead with film scores, another opera at the Met, a piano concerto for Lang Lang, and countless other works. Yet the opera was turgid, the concerto pallid. Perhaps Tan Dun was destined to write film music?

Definitely not. Last night’s concert, presented by Juilliard School displayed four works, two early, two late, three of them absorbing. (An apology: I had gone to Avery Fisher Hall by mistake, ran down to Carnegie Hall just in time to discover that the concert was back at Alice Tully Hall, so I missed the first piece.)

Silk Road, for piano and percussion, showed Mr. Tan’s genius at his most singular. A poem by Arthur Sze, written in English, was choppy enough (“the, a, this, the, tangerine….”) that it sounded vaguely like the Cantonese opera I would hear in Hong Kong. The percussion group, played expertly by Michael Truesdell, accompanied soprano Jennifer Zetlan, her lines being equally percussive. Ms. Zetlan ranged up and down the widest compasses, punctuating with counterpoint on vibraphones and gongs.

Honestly, I had had little love for Chinese opera when living there, but Mr. Dun’s work was like a distillation, an essence which sounded Chinese, yet had a Western emotional impact. The last time I heard Ms. Zetlan was in Our Town at Juilliard, and she put her dramatic lyricism to work making this more than a novelty.

Mr. Tun’s next Strange Land for 12 cellos was as dark as the color of his instruments. Again, he was percussive (the cellists stamped their feet at times), but each musician was a soloist, imitating, passing on themes, transforming and exercising repeated themes, repeated special effects.

The world premiere of the 30-minute Violin Concerto, written for the great Cho Liang Lin, was eagerly anticipated, disappointing nobody.

The second movement was almost naked Tan Dun: no percussion, no Chinese special effects. Instead, Mr. Lin started with a very simple theme–it could have been written by Samuel Barber–played against throbbing strings. More than throbbing though, soon the lower strings were playing a more ominous two-note ostinato, and the brass was coming out of the mists with a massive one-note crescendo, repeated over and over like an omen of doom.

It wasn’t that this “Melancholy” was the most original, but it showed Mr. Dun at his most inspired.

The two outer movements must have taxed Mr. Lin to the fullest, with hardly any breaks. The first movement started with an amorphous marimba solo (the five percussionists are listed above), this repeated throughout, becoming a virtual motif. Against this, Mr. Lin played a non-stop cadenza, punctuated by percussion, brass, and wind solos, all ending with a dying out of violin and harp.

If this was a tour de force, the final “Dramatico” was even more difficult for orchestra and soloist, Every measure changed, in tempo or color, held together only by Mr. Lin and the background clicks, bangs and dings by woodblocks, gongs, crash cymbals, cowbells and tubular chimes. Amidst this, Mr. Lin managed to play the most intricate music, with a variety of multiple stops and a steely vigor throughout.

Like Beethoven, Mr. Dun had a half-dozen pretend-endings, but when the whole orchestra came together for the real climax, it was breathlessly good.

At a first reading, with no score and no advance explanation, I would like to hear it again….and possibly again. Mr. Dun’s novelties are worthwhile for a hearing or two. This Violin Concerto is the work of a contemporary master.

Harry Rolnick



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