A ‘Buddha Passion’: Amid Sound And Fury, Tales Of Self-Sacrifice

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Pipa player and dancer Chen Yining and composer-conductor Tan Dun during a performance of ‘Buddha Passion’ with the Seattle Symphony. (Photos by Brandon Patoc)

SEATTLE — The Seattle Symphony went all out for its Masterworks Series presentation of Tan Dun’s six-part Buddha Passion (seen Nov. 12 in Benaroya Hall). Tan Dun himself conducted the performances.

The elaborate music called for massive sound sculpting of its five amplified vocal soloists, pipa player, auxiliary percussionists, the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and Northwest Boychoir. An an ancillary event, the Seattle Symphony offered The Mogao Caves: An Immersive Experience in its intimate Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center performance space beneath the hall. Here, in a 180-degree introduction to the shrines and treasures in the Mogao Caves that inspired Tan Dun to compose Buddha Passion, concertgoers discovered the work’s spiritual underpinnings.

For those who missed the Octave 9 introduction or who never read the extensive program notes, the Nov. 12 performance was preceded by an excellent lecture by Seattle Symphony board member and Dunhuang Foundation board co-chair Mimi Gardner Gates. As she explained, the caves where Tan Dun spent two years immersed in research are an extraordinarily well-preserved Buddhist depository and UNESCO Heritage site in the Silk Road city of Dunhuang. The library, sculptures, and wall-paintings found in hundreds of the surviving 750 Mogao caves — there are over 2,000 sculptures in these sacred spaces, the earliest of which date back to the 4th century, and an astounding number of brightly colored wall paintings — retell stories whose core teaching is that self-sacrifice leads to salvation and enlightenment.

Tan Dun’s score calls for a huge battery of percussion that includes amplified water.

Lessons aside, Buddha Passion is hardly a selfless musical exercise. Not only does Tan Dun’s score call for a huge battery of percussion that includes Tibetan double cymbals, rubbed Chinese cymbals, and transparent paper cups in tubs of amplified water, but it also alters the original happy ending of the story about a Deer of Nine Colors — Act II of the six-act passion play/opera/spectacle — to add a generous helping of echt-Christian shame and punishment to a moral fable about selflessness and respect for all living things.

The sound world of Buddha Passion is an exotic amalgam of East and West with a generous dollop of three-strip Technicolor Hollywood film score thrown into the mix. Thanks to amplification, the presentation experienced from nine rows back from the stage was virtually electric in impact. When the music settled down, its beauty was often transcendent. But when everything got going at once, the holy racket was so sensually overwhelming that the listener could either resist it with all their might or surrender to the sheer magnitude of Tan Dun’s divine cacophony.

The Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, and Northwest Boychoir performing Tan Dun’s ‘Buddha Passion’ under the composer.

Amplification changed moment to moment. Volume levels were adjusted in real time and reportedly differed at the previous performance. To these ears, the degree of amplification was dependent in large part upon an artist’s movements and power. Handsome-voiced and extremely animated baritone Elliot Madore was much too underpowered at the start of the piece and never boosted to levels afforded the glamorously bedecked and fine-voiced soprano Lei Xu. A few of her top notes grew harsh, but everything else shone with perfection.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Moore seemed to possess the strongest voice of all and sounded least amplified. Although her dress was plain Jane in comparison to Lei Xu’s two different sparkling costumes — in true diva fashion, Lei Xu changed outfits during intermission — the soprano-like top of Moore’s marvelous voice possessed a rare glamour that brought the gifts of the higher-voiced Ninon Vallin to mind. She’s a superb singer. I hope Moore returns to the Seattle area soon.

Tenor Yi Li was blessed with strength and vocal beauty throughout his range. His shining top was especially strong. Equally striking were the basso profundo low drones and khoomei overtone chanting of Hanggai Band member and morin khuur player Batubagen. Visually, however, he more than met his match in the astounding, white-clad pipa player and dancer Chen Yining, who balanced balletically on one leg while twisting her body and playing the pipa from behind her head.

Tan Dun accepting the Seattle audience’s applause after conducting his ‘Buddha Passion.’

After intermission, the score offered extended sections of rare calm and beauty. The music of Act V: “Heart Sutra” was blissfully free of artifice and filled with sounds so extraordinary that I sometimes found it impossible to focus on the projected translations. Instead, I closed my eyes and reveled in Tan Dun’s world. At the section’s close, “The Sutra of Compassion” miraculously expressed through music the paradoxical message, “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is form… All things… are in essence emptiness.”

Act Six: “Nirvana” included an exquisite final vocal trio-quartet from Xu, Moore, Li, and Madore. Did Madore intentionally grow sharp at the end? Soon thereafter, he began to pose a series of spiritual questions and answers amid the calm. But this being music by Tan Dun, a soft resolution would not do. As the end grew near, the music shifted into high gear, culminating in a grand, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink climax of which Mahler might have been proud. The language, of course, was entirely Tan Dun’s, but its big bang seemed light-years removed from the humble compassion of Buddha’s teachings. Like the caves themselves, it was quite the show.