Ghost Opera by Tan Dun @ Soundstreams reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 24, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Tan Dun is a colossus. Like Bach and Shakespeare whose voices he fuses into Ghost Opera, Tan Dun can let you glimpse the big picture—how all things flow in harmony.

The performances that opened this Sino-Western fusion concert had their own excellences and warmed the audience to receive Tan Dun’s blockbuster. The most enjoyable was Dorothy Chang’s Lost and Found (World Première), with Les Dala conducting combined chamber ensembles and Gregory Oh at the piano. Ms. Chang’s five part work had an easy flow, lyrical melodies, jazzy moods, contemplative moments, some melancholy passages, impressionistic interludes where pipa and erhu blended uniquely with accordion.

It required no effort to imagine water dripping into a forest pool, sparkle of sunlight on water, languid breezes, bending reeds, birdsong, lengthening shadows, flowers opening in slow motion, snails in progress along a blade of grass. The long suspended silence at the end was the best tribute to the power of Ms. Chang’s composition.

Qian & Yan by Chen Xiaoyong was also performed by two full ensembles: Toronto’s Accordes String Quartet, enhanced with winds and accordion, sat in with Taiwan’s Chai Found Music Workshop on the following instruments: Erhu (two-stringed Chinese violin), Di (Chinese bamboo flutes), Guzheng (Chinese zither), Pipa (Chinese lute), Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), Ruan (Chinese banjo or guitar).

The sounds were a blended sequence of clicks, squeaks, squawks, creaks, whistles, ticks, pings, slides, scrapes, and whines. Not so pretty but very interesting in a couple of ways, especially if you are willing to forget about what you already like in music and are willing to open, listen, and learn. It was interesting to hear how naturally the instruments of the Accordes ensemble blended their timbres and sonics with the Chai’s. It was interesting that the mix sounded not Western or Chinese but “alien”.

Traditional European chamber music is thought of as a conversation among individual instrumental voices. Traditional Chinese music, this night added to the program as a solo by the Chai ensemble as a contrast to the fusion theme, sounds like instruments in chorus blending their individual voices into a whole. The alien effect in Qian & Yan occured because the instruments did not sound like individual voices or like aspects of a blend.

The various instrumental sounds had no identity except as units being assimilated to a sonic entity that was growing — like “The Borg” in Star Trek, but not sinister, merely alien and rather friendly, like “E.T.” I think my words agree with the composer’s own when he says “the beginning point of music is the ending point of word, the design of the sound can show feelings of the most innermost kind.”

Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa (1994) is as crazy as the village in which Tan Dun grew up. “My whole village was crazy…Instruments were improvised:pots and pans, kitchen bowls and belts.” His mind is a natural stage for a dialogue between Bach and ghost opera traditions, between spirits and natural elements, between past and future, between musical instruments and sounds of moving water, rocks and paper. Everything is everything else and the transformations happen because Tan Dun is aware of the underlying harmony. Because he makes this awareness directly available to the listener,  his musical ideas can be totally outrageous and instantly delightful.

David Hetherington is sawing away at a Bach fugue on his cello, while Steven Sitarski is banging rocks together and altering their tone by opening and closing his mouth. Hui-Kuan Lin twangs out a folk-song on her pipa which Carol Fujino picks up on her violin and the tune gets layered in with the Bach. Intermittently Doug Perry shouts “Yaou!”, chatters and hisses significantly, Hui-Kuan-Lin sings the lament of a little cabbage that lost its parents and the four Western string players dip gongs in water bowls, bowing the bowls and add their whine to the sound of the water dripping back into the bowl. From behind a gauze screen we hear the voice of Shakespeare’s magician Prospero reciting the line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Bach merges with the sounds of water and disappears.

This program of music as good as it gets is a kind of coup for Soundstreams Artistic Director Lawrence Cherney because three of the composers (Tan Dun, Chen Xiaoyong, and Chen Yi) grew up during the repressive Cultural Revolution, and were classmates in the first composition course given at the Central Conservatory in Beijing after the Revolution ended. They each have something genuine to say about “music that is refreshingly new yet rooted in ancient traditions.”

Tan Dun will be conducting his Water and Paper Concertos at the Toronto Symphony orchestra in late May of this year. Link

Comments are closed.