London's Royal Festival Hall hosted Chinese-American composer and conductor Tan Dun on January 22, who has conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and London Chinese Philharmonic Choir (as part of their first collaboration) for the UK debut of his extensive musical sutra Passion of Buddha, which is inspired by Tan Dun's visit to the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, China. And what a great way to say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger and welcome the Year of the Rabbit as we celebrate the Chinese New Year! There was a packed house at the Royal Festival Hall and a standing ovation lasted for this rousing historic performance.
Tan Dun's professional credits are long and impressive, and this was clearly a deeply personal project for him, one with a message that transcends geography, race and time. In this profound work, Tan Dun brought the "Musical Murals" of the Mogao Caves, and the manuscripts that were once kept there, into the realm of "angels", as Tan Dun calls music: angels who link the past and the present. and cultural differences with messages of compassion and love.
Performed in six parts, the dialogue from the opera Passion of Buddha– not that it is strictly an opera – was transcribed into Chinese, Sanskrit and English, which was invaluable in helping audiences keep up with the sung conversations, humorous exchanges and performances of mantras , and also useful for staging. And once I understood what Tan Dun had envisioned in those moments, I was able to close my eyes and lose myself in the esoteric soundscape. For it was indeed a cinematic experience: choirs that came to a perfect still as they slid like oil down a frozen stream, while otherworldly voices echoed the power of old romantic orchestral epics of Hollywood.
Tan Dun invited us into the resonance of these ancient caves as the evening opened with a barely audible hum of violin, and the ebb and flow of a heart-like beat that offered something almost visceral all throughout the performance. The solemnity of a lonely church bell haunted us as much as the sweet melody that was fleetingly and subtly shaken by a sound of sliding shattered glass reminiscent (to me) of the sound of reality behind the code of illusion used in the movie The matrix.
Tingshapebbles, wood and singing bowls, as well as a choir of bells rung for the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Drops of water took us to a Zen garden, and performer Yining Chen floated like a apsaradancing through the orchestra, pinching her kiteand transport us to a great palace.
You could have heard a fly drop when we found ourselves in the middle of the freezing Dunhuang desert, as singer Batubagen took the stage with his performance of native singing and his playing of a stringed instrument drawn straight from the venerable walls of Cave. This ancient instrument, called Dunhuang xiqin, seemed to captivate the audience. Sen Guo then sang a duet with Batubagen, with his moving but perfectly frail and heartbreaking dialogue during the heart sutra.
Tan Dun's aim was to transform ancient Buddhist cave paintings into musical expression, but following the great tradition of the classical Christian Passions composed by artists like Johann Sebastian Bach. In doing so, he aimed to marry East and West in the life of the young prince Siddhartha, leading to his enlightenment, spiritual teachings and ancestor stories; tragedy and humor delivered with epic orchestral sounds that would fill any cathedral, and with the wonderful voices of Huiling Zhu, Kang Wang and Shenyang that would have been at home in any opera.
There were a few standout moments for me: the aforementioned native songs, the calm of Nirvana, the Zen garden, among others. . .
If you love a choral experience, an orchestral opera theatre, the solemnity of classic grand cinema echoing, with religious reverence, the halls of a spectacular Christian abbey, this inspiring performance is definitely not to be missed. If you prefer a stronger fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions, an exotic mix of vocal styles and instruments, then maybe this isn't for you?
What is for everyone, however, are the messages that this Passion conveys: the timeless, borderless and profound Buddhist message and the teaching of compassion.
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