Photo, London Philharmonic Orchestra

Sunday, January 22, 2023 [Chinese New Year]

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga 

“Music is like the angels of the human race.” Premiered by the Munich Philharmonic in Dresden in May 2018, Tan Dun’s latest mega spectacle, his Buddha Passion, was commissioned by the Dresden Music Festival in cooperation with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Described on the title page as an “opera”, it’s sung in Sanskrit and Chinese, calls for a spectacular array of instrumental and vocal resources, and draws its inspiration from the Buddhist murals of the Mogao Caves in Western China (the Thousand Buddha Grottoes) near Dunhuang of Silk Road association. In his programme note Tan speaks of caverns from between the fifth and fourteenth centuries (735 of them, Sixteen Kingdoms to Yuan Dynasty) containing musical paintings, formerly sealed up, “depicting more than 4000 musical instruments, 3000 musicians and 500 orchestras”. Hoards of manuscripts equally.

Compassion, love and nature, mortality and belief, meditation. The libretto, Tan’s own but additionally incorporating texts ancient and modern, relates a number of tales within six Acts, prefaced by a Prologue: “Nirvana is gradually revealed: a reclining Buddha occupies the entire stage, reposeful with eyes half closed. Behind him are his disciples, who will be characters in the [Acts to come]. Accompanied by music, the mural dissolves, the characters walk out elegantly … with Little Prince, the Bird of All Lives, and the Bodhi Tree leading the way.” Act I Under the Bodhi Tree [Tree of Awakening]. Act II The Deer of Nine Colours. Act III A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes [“A hallucinatory aspara (female spirit) dance”]. Act IV Zen Garden. Act V Heart Sutra [“A Fire Ballet manifests in the desert of the Mountain of Flames”]. Act VI Nirvana [“Are you God?” Buddha answers, “No, I am not.” “Are you the Son of God?” “No, I am not.” “Are you sent by God?” “No, I am not.” “Please enlighten us: what are you?” “I am … awake … Moon and sun disappear. Mountains and rivers shudder. All goes into darkness. Bells toll. The Ode to Compassion: Heaven Earth Mankind rises, accompanied by a shining moon”].

The cameos Tan crafts are evocative, always suggestive, frequently moving. Ancestral. The Deer of Nine Colours made a special impression; Heart Sutra was mesmerisingly unforgettable. Trademark effects and ‘world’ timbres abound: falling water, tintinnabulations, cosmic fundamentals, the ‘singing sands’ of the Kumtag … Where the music convinced less was in some of its dichotomies. Chinois occidentalisé,Hanggai Band earthiness and C-major rarely make the happiest of bedfellows. Occasionally I wondered at the bombast, the progressive sameness of soundworld. Dramatically, following the magically hushed swelling/fading “Buddha, the Compassionate One, you are awake. You leave us for the other shore” cadence of Act VI, I’d have preferred either nothing at all or else a different kind of “Light of Awake” Ode to finish – elevated and ascending certainly but less Western clichéd or gauche.

Tan, no baton, went for the big performance – if for my taste not quite big enough (I haven’t heard Dudamel, Dausgaard or Long Yu). Expectedly, the LPO excelled technically yet arguably not always in tune with the style or aesthetic of the work: a largely secure studio run in need of some post-production crossed my mind by the end. The tameness of the two Chinese drums (physical beasts that they are) was surprising. Elsewhere the lack of a substanced fff when it mattered disappointed: that final unison C really needs climactic thunder and corpus. Most imposing of the soloists was Shenyang (winner of the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World) in the roles variously of Mantra, The Emperor, The King, Daman Hongren (Fifth Patriarch) and Buddha. A major theatrical voice. Most spine-chilling was Batubagen – throat/overtone singer, Dunhuang xiqin player (three-stringed fiddle), former sheep-herder from Inner Mongolia. Ethnically garbed rather than concert costumed, his musicality and exchange with the soprano Sen Guo as the dying Nina (Act V), she here at her best, took one to the dawn of creation (throat singing does that, think of Eivør Pálsdóttir from the Faroe Islands). Huiling Zhu, pencil black, brought a statuesque presence to her contribution, dark eyes motionless yet watching. Kang Wang was quietly authoritative. Yining Chen, pipa/dancer, had a modest but visually striking part as one of the Emperor’s three daughters (Act III): a pale figure of limb and sinew in white, ritualising her poses with elegant stillness, the plucked strings of her pipa framed in incense and pulse. Faced with a score of complex rhythms, contrasts and demands, the combined London Philharmonic Choir and London Chinese Philharmonic Choir (Neville Creed and Bo Wang artistic directors respectively), notwithstanding a couple of loose entries, delivered a phonetically strong response. The performance was surtitled in English – necessarily but occasionally distractingly, the transiently awkward text wanting in poetic nuance. Projecting some of the murals that stimulated Tan, giving a context to proceedings, wouldn’t have gone amiss.

“Water, wind, and stone.” One of those standing ovation flagship nights. Heart Sutra I’ll take away with me. Have a listen to Gong Linna’s seering account with Batubagen and Tan in Shanghai, 2020. It’s glorious –