Tan Dun Passion Bridges Boundaries Of Style And Faith

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By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Does the world really need another Passion? From Heinrich Schütz to J.S. Bach to Krzysztof Penderecki to John Adams and beyond, there are plenty of settings and re-interpretations of Jesus’ last days on Earth to go around. Yet Tan Dun, who already had composed a Water Passion, came up with a terrific new twist on the idea. He wrote a Buddha Passion which, from the evidence of the U.S. premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall Feb. 8, has enough universal appeal and emotional wallop to sweep the world.

Tan Dun has said that he got the idea for the piece from a German music critic who, having heard Water Passion, said, “Oh, this is Buddha Bach.” A light bulb went on inside the composer’s head: “Why don’t I write a Buddha Passion?” (Who says music critics aren’t good for anything?)

Tan Dun found further inspiration from years of personal research into the ancient Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Western China along the Silk Road, and from decoding the musical manuscripts from the Dunhuang Library Cave. (Interestingly, Peter Sellars’ original inspiration for his staging of Schumann’s Das Paradies un die Peri here in 2018 also came from these caves, as viewed at the Getty Museum in 2016, but the concept had veered off in another direction by the time it was presented.)

Tan Dun led the world, Asian and Australian premieres of his `Buddha Passion’ in 2018. (Lise Kihle)

The world premiere of the Buddha Passion took place at the Dresden Music Festival in May 2018, with Tan Dun conducting the Munich Philharmonic, and the composer went on to lead the Australian premiere with the Melbourne Symphony in October and the Asian premiere with the Hong Kong Philharmonic in November. For the U.S. premiere, Tan Dun merely took a seat in the hall and let someone else – the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s world-embracing music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel – do the driving.

Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion is a 95-minute oratorio – about the same length as his Water Passion. Its synopsis indicates that it can also be staged as an opera. Structured in six acts with a short prologue and intermission after Act III, the Buddha Passion illustrates six Buddha parables and stories, with the sixth being the Buddha’s ascension into Nirvana. There are tales of the value of equality among all creatures; the powers of karma, sacrifice, and love; philosophical debates – all based upon the cave paintings. As in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, each section concludes with an “Ode To Compassion” chorale that comments upon and sums up what was just heard. That the term “Passion” fits into the word “compassion” can’t be a coincidence in this context.

Shenyang sang the lines of the Buddha in Act VI. (Jerry Liu)

In an uncharacteristically modest move for them these days, the LA Phil chose to present the Buddha Passion in concert form – without stage action, sets, high-tech video, and all that. As things turned out, the piece didn’t need any of it. The Buddha Passion communicates simply, directly, to the intellect and emotions even while using a staggeringly wide array of sonorities and the distancing languages of Chinese and Sanskrit. We could concentrate on the music and the messages, and only the music and the messages, aided by English supertitles. (For the considerable number of Asian constituents in the house, there were Chinese supertitles as well.)

The Prologue’s opening bars – a quiet Sanskrit choral chant on a soft drone, with wonderfully weird dissonant mass sounds from the winds and brass – set a seductive mood that immediately drew this listener in. Tan Dun’s writing often veers into lush Romantic film-score territory, yet the use of sliding pitches, pentatonic melodies – some quite ancient in origin – and strange new sonorities give the score its own stamp, as if to acknowledge Hollywood’s global impact without shutting the rest of the world out of the picture.

As one would expect from a Tan Dun work, he loaded his percussion section with all sorts of unusual implements – his trademark splashing and dripping water from basins, a set of Chinese paigu drums, a big red taiko drum, a Tibetan singing bowl, pairs of stones which chorus members clicked en masse, a flexitone, and on and on. They are, however, applied sparingly, some appearing once and then never again in the piece. At times, the composer tuned out the orchestra altogether and turned things over to some definitive local color: the white-clad fantan pipa soloist and dancer Chen Yining; the guttural throat sounds of Mongolian khoomei overtone singer and xiqin* (a small, two-string, Mongolian cello) virtuoso Batubagen; Tan Weiwei’s heartfelt “indigenous” singing. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus turned up in the first half of the piece and then vanished after intermission.

Khoomei overtone singer Batubagen and his xiqin.* (Twitter)

Yet everything is somehow integrated into a whole. The music in all of its polyglot complexity follows the story lines, the instruments sometimes imitating and commenting upon the vocalists, managing to build to heart-wrenching climaxes before subsiding into meditation. It’s a beautiful score, and it can bridge boundaries of style and faith. Even an atheist would find something meaningful to take away from the experience; in Act VI, after being asked respectively by his grieving followers, “Are you God? Are you the Son of God? Are you sent by God?” the soon-to-be-departing Buddha answers “No, I’m not,” adding “I am … awake.”

Ever the quick study, Dudamel reveled in Tan Dun’s East-West sound world, with detail after exotic instrumental detail pinging cleanly off the resonant walls of Disney Hall. Soprano Sen Guo could be heard in full Puccini-mode pathos as the The Deer of Nine Colors pleading for her life. Huiling Zhu displayed a warm, slightly wobbly mezzo-soprano voice, Kang Wang an agreeable lyric tenor. Bass-baritone Shenyang delivered the moral of the Act I parable authoritatively as well as the gentle words of the Buddha in Act VI. The Los Angeles Master Chorale turned in its usual bright, robust choral work.

I can’t say for sure whether the exultant, supercharged codas that ended each half of the oratorio – with drums beating forcefully away – were due to savvy showmanship or genuinely unfettered bursts of optimism. Probably both. But as a result, the first half of the Buddha Passion was greeted with almost as loud a standing ovation as the concluding half of the work; the piece was a hit with this audience well before it reached the finish line. And these weren’t just the usual routine standing ovations that we see at most concerts. They felt like the real thing.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.

*Edited/corrected 2/12/19.

Date posted: February 11, 2019

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