Dudamel, LA Phil and friends deliver the spirituality and the spectacle of Tan Dun’s “Buddha Passion”

February 11, 2019
By John von Rhein
Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun's "Buddha Passion"  on Sunday at Disney Hall.

Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s “Buddha Passion” Sunday at Disney Hall.

LOS ANGELES. No symphony orchestra, it is safe to assume, has ever celebrated its centennial as lavishly as the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Or as ambitiously.

The 100th anniversary season that began in September has brought the U.S. or world premieres of no fewer than 50 commissioned works, fueled by a $500-million fundraising drive perhaps only Southern California could support. 

Credit Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil’s visionary artistic chief, now in his 10th season as music director, for using the milestone as the orchestra’s most wide-ranging move yet to exemplify California’s vanguard contribution to the dissolution of world music barriers. We can expect Esa-Pekka Salonen, Dudamel’s predecessor at the LAPO and music director-designate of the San Francisco Symphony, to affix his own artistic stamp on that epic quest once he takes up his Bay Area duties in September 2020. 

Between them, both orchestras are moving the West Coast to the forefront of defining what a dynamic 21st century arts institution can mean to the life of a quintessential 21st century city. They are models of enlightened adventure across a generally stodgy and hidebound U.S. symphonic landscape.

Meanwhile, last weekend Dudamel and the Philharmonic gave the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s oratorio Buddha Passion (2018), a major salvo in their centenary-driven campaign to bust world-music barriers. An international consortium of orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic) shared in the commission, which had its world premiere under the composer’s baton last year in Dresden. 

The huge, colorful scoring calls for six singers, a pipa-playing dancer, adult and children’s choruses and a large orchestra augmented by various Chinese percussion, bells, wood blocks, water basin and so forth. The libretto, which Tan wrote himself, derives from six ancient Chinese folk tales inspired by the teachings of Buddha involving such precepts as love, sacrifice, forgiveness and compassion for all creatures, human and animal. 

Tan Dun

Tan Dun

The composer spent two years researching these stories and “lost” musical manuscripts (some of which apparently yielded melodies he worked into the score) in the awe-inspiring Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site at the ancient city of Dunhuang in western China. 

The “Passion” part of Buddha Passion relates to the passing of Buddha into Nirvana in the sixth and final act (“Nirvana”). Otherwise, the 105-minute work bears an even more tangential relationship to the Christian Passion tradition than Tan’s 2000 oratorio Water Passion.

Sunday’s soldout performance of Buddha Passion provided a rather overextended and musically uneven work, albeit a significant addition to the Chinese-born, American-based Tan’s prolific catalogue of East-meets-West works. 

No composer of our day fuses wildly diverse musical impulses from both sides of the Pacific Rim so successfully or imaginatively.

This score represents rather a conservative retreat from the bold harmonic clashes and pungently modernist musical grammar of some of Tan’s earlier large choral-orchestral canvases. Indeed, I found the initial three movements (“The Bodhi Tree,” “The Deer of Nine Colors” and “A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes”) weaker and less inspired than the final three. With those last sections – “Zen Garden,” “Heart Sutra” and “Nirvana” – Tan allowed himself to be more personal in his musico-dramatic storytelling, thus coming closer to evoking the Buddha’s teachings as well as the mystical, centuries-straddling resonance of his philosophy.

More than mere color effects, the composer’s familiar color devices – bent tones, sliding pitches, throat-singing drones, exotic percussion effects derived from folk and Chinese opera sources – are seamlessly woven into each discrete dramatic narrative. By the same token, Tan’s layering and integration of choral, vocal and orchestral parts is as masterful as in any large-scale work he has written to date. There is a compelling narrative arc to these tales, each an effective fairy tale with a Buddhist moral attached, given timeless voice by his music. Projected titles were in both English and Chinese.

That said, it’s too bad that Tan succumbed to the urge to throw in bombastic Carmina Burana-cum-Hollywood finales to the third and sixth sections. Coming just ahead of intermission and at the end of the “Nirvana,” they drew instant standing Os and lusty cries of “Wow!” from some in the audience; for this listener, they just felt cheap. How much more moving “Nirvana” – and Passion as a whole – would have been had Tan cut off the finale some 10 minutes earlier, with his having the singers and chorus easing Buddha into the next world in a soft, slow fade to nothingness.

Even so, one could have nothing but the highest praise for the seven vocal and instrumental soloists. (All but one – Chen Yining, the fantan pipa player and dancer, wonderfully silken in the “Thousand Arms” section – was recreating his or her role from the Dresden premiere.)

Sen Guo’s pure, shimmering soprano soared into the vocal stratosphere with poignant effect as the miraculous multi-colored deer who sacrifices her life to a greedy hunter, among several other beautifully sung assignments. She was strongly matched as a singing actor by both the sturdy and expressive bass-baritone of Shenyang, the bright tenor of Kang Wang, focused and comfortable in the high tessitura of his several solos, and the dramatically engaged mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu. 

There were potent contributions as well from the “indigenous” singers Tan Weiwei and Batubagen, the latter emitting a kind of pitched growling in his lowest register while bowing an amplified erdu, the traditional Chinese stringed instrument. That folk cello was integral to “Heart Sutra,” the most authentically Chinese movement, which could have been lifted from a Chinese opera ; one or two more of such unadorned natural segments would have counterbalanced the Western tonal consonances and Hollywood lushness and would have made Buddha Passion a stronger, better piece.

The L.A. Master Chorale brought uncommon discipline, virtuosity and deep expressive involvement  to the proceedings, director Grant Gerson’s superbly prepared choral contingent throwing itself into vocal writing that relied heavily on Chinese vocal techniques in addition to more traditional Western choral singing. Kudos as well to the bright-voiced Los Angeles Children’s Chorus for its committed contributions, and to the excellent work of the Philharmonic musicians. 

Dudamel showed exacting control on the podium but knew when to relax his grip when flexibility of phrasing was needed to buoy the solo and choral singing. The crisp rhythmic precision his musicians brought to the quasi-jazzy ostinatos had the curious effect of transporting the listener from the recomposed folk music of ancient China to the actual street music of modern Latin America.

One hopes that a DVD is released of Buddha Passion, as well as a recording, since this potent contemporary music theater experience is as much visual as aural in impulse.

 


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