Water Concerto

Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes, Op.115
The Seasons
Tan Dun
Out of Peking Opera
Water Concerto [new version]
Laughing Unlearnt [London premiere]

Cho-Liang Lin (violin)

Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Tan Dun

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Composer/conductors are hardly uncommon these days – and, on the basis of this Prom, Tan Dun’s conducting is one of executive rather than interpretative leaning. A composer who first made his mark with a sequence of well-crafted orchestral works marrying Chinese harmonic inflection with a Varèse-like vividness of sonority, his idiom has become not so much refined as anecdotalised – as the opportunity for tackling more ambitious projects has correspondingly increased.

Which perhaps explains the Shostakovich and Cage works at the start of the concert. The former’s Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes (1963) is a solid effort whose seemingly unremarkable handling of sonata form throws up numerous references to earlier works (notably the Seventh and Tenth Symphonies) in a way unlikely to be coincidental. But then, the combination of circumstances – the ‘official’ commemoration, by an ostensible member of the Communist Party, of the anniversary of the “voluntary incorporation of Kirghizia into the Russian state” (its capital, Frunze, saw the internal exile of his sister and brother-in-law during Stalin’s terror) – was bound to evoke passing equivocation. Tan conveyed the pensive brooding of the introduction, and obtained an animated response in the Allegro, though the thematic intensification of the latter stages proved elusive.

Following this with Cage’s ballet The Seasons (1947) made sense in that both suggest a nationalism almost in spite of itself. In Cage’s instance, this is partly explained by it being his first orchestral work (Lou Harrison had a major role in the orchestration): the result is a light-textured piece which evokes the ‘American’ works of Copland, albeit with their expressive syntax removed to leave notes sounding in space. Tan’s differentiation of each season’s emotional character, and their alternation with almost Stravinskian preludes and interludes, made a satisfying rendition – though Lawrence Foster’s account in the BBC’s recent Cage Weekend was arguably closer to the spirit of the work.

The beginning of the second half gave Tan and the orchestra a break as Cho-Liang Lin gave a persuasive account of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Laughing Unlearnt (2002). Taking his cue from an Albert Giraud poem found (in translation) in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Salonen has fashioned a tightly-organised chaconne of demonstrable thematic potency – traversing an arc whose cumulative expressive reach was comprehensively realised here.

Otherwise, the concert belonged to Tan, and two concerto-type works whose 12-year distance marks his transition from the periphery to the centre of Western new music. ‘Western’ because, though Chinese by birth and upbringing, Tan has made his home in New York for almost two decades, and his music embodies the eclecticism and the calculation of an advanced cultural milieu. Among his earliest acknowledged works, Out of Peking Opera (1987) is an attractive if cautious meeting of Occident and Orient such as Alexander Tcherepnin might have essayed. Violin and orchestra come together, then move apart, in an introduction and coda – between which the piece makes a surprisingly orthodox traversal of contrasting themes with development and reprise, the latter two separated by a cadenza giving full rein to Lin’s lyrically incisive tone. An engaging if musically unremarkable score.

Anyone previously unacquainted with Tan’s music, and having read Robert Maycock’s eulogistic notes beforehand, might well assume that the Water Concerto (1999) represents a deeper fusion of means to more personal ends. In three continuous movements (with curiously Sibelian tempo markings), this 35-minute work is prefaced by a prelude in which the solo percussionist makes a theatrical arrival: on this occasion, a semi-circular journey from the back of the Albert Hall Arena to the left of the platform – attendant Prommers moving aside in Evelyn Glennie’s wake as might a flock of anxious sheep in the face of an unlikely sheep dog.

Soloist and orchestral percussionists having so far been restricted to bowing what had the appearance of lantern cases, the first movement focused on the rhythmic possibilities of clear-plastic bowls of water, augmented by an orchestral contribution which evokes (or perhaps anticipates) Tan’s score to Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. After a brief cadenza, the second movement brought more sustained, albeit monophonic, melodic writing for cello and woodwind vis-à-vis gongs and other, more utilitarian implements suspended in various depths of water. Then, after a further cadenza, the finale attempted a toccata-like rhythmic energy in which Glennie gravitated to upstage tuned percussion, and in which brass and timpani self-consciously entered the fray. An accompanied cadenza, during which percussion and strings in harmonics melded to atmospheric effect, led to a conclusion whose dynamism was capped by the sound of water draining symbolically through a sieve.

Make no mistake, Tan – like Glennie – is a consummate showman, and directed his concerto with the alacrity of one for whom music-making is synonymous with performance art. Yet the feeling persists he has ultimately achieved nothing more provocative than the late Jerry Goldsmith’s electronically- transformed mixing bowls from his score to “Planet of the Apes”, or the percussive effects that underscore 1970s’ series such as “Kojak” or “The Streets of San Francisco”. The failing thus lies not in the means Tan has used, but in the unoriginal ends with which he utilises them. Only an era so susceptible to cultural amnesia as our own could find it more than a mildly amusing diversion.

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