Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion at the Royal Festival Hall review – A magnificent piece of work connecting East and West

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When Tan Dun’s music for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Oscar in 2000, it entered a celebrity realm few classical composers could match. Now she is even a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, along with Laura Bush and Princess Caroline of Hanover.

Famous indeed. He was born in China in 1957 and has lived in the USA since 1986, writing music that travels easily between cultures and eras. It readily embraces the broad, schmaltzy richness of the soundtrack, but equally exploits Western avant-garde traditions or ancient Chinese rituals and instruments at home.

All these threads come together in Buddha Passion, directed by Tan himself, which had its UK premiere last night. This is a tremendous work, requiring not only the London Philharmonic, but six soloists, including a dancer playing two heavy choirs (London Philharmonic and London Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra) as well as the pipa (a venerable Chinese instrument similar to the udata).

The 90-minute piece draws the concept of ‘passion’ from the tradition of Christian musical works (especially Bach’s) that tell the story of Christ’s suffering and death. Here, the six-part story focused on the path to Buddhist enlightenment. The text was in Chinese and Sanskrit (with eloquent English subtitles provided), while the music oscillated between West and East.

The program described two of its vocal soloists as “native”: the soprano Sen Guo sang sometimes in the Peking Opera style, sometimes in a more Western style; Batubagen, on the other hand, plays xiqin (an almost extinct string violin) to accompany his Mongolian harmony songs, an extraordinary sound that blends both highs and lows. Meanwhile, Western singers occasionally morphed into harmonies and dazed glissandos.

It might sound a bit messy and not everything worked out: Despite having a narrative logic at work, Yining Chen’s dance part seemed somehow glued on. It was this logic that put things in order; there was a real sense of storytelling through ritual, with sung verses sometimes representing characters, sometimes offering words of gnomic wisdom: “The greatest music doesn’t make a sound” struck a certain chord, so to speak.

If that sounds heavy, there were also moments of humor, including loud laughter and complex wordplay with numbers one through nine. For most of the performance, the orchestra was the supporting act, but the six percussionists were kept busy from start to finish, sometimes hitting it loudly, sometimes producing something more transparent, even completely liquid in a few spots; Tan knows how to make the water sing.

Despite a few missteps, the overall effect was cumulative, such that the standing ovation that greeted the final silence felt like a mass release.

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