Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A brilliantly timed UK première of Tan Dun’s ‘Buddha Passion’

22 January 2023

The Royal Festival Hall celebrates the Year of the Rabbit.

Buddha Passion

LPO, Tan Dun, Shenyang, Huiling Zhu, Sen Guo & Kang Wang (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

With impeccable timing, the London Philharmonic Orchestra scheduled their performance of the UK première of Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion at the Royal Festival Hall for the first evening of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year.

It’s a highly approachable work from the composer of the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: a fusion of the European Romantic tradition and the soundworld of Chinese music (pentatonic scales, sliding strings, plenty of percussion, khoomei – throat singing – sections for instruments such as the pipa and the Dunhuang xiqin), spiced with the occasional inclusion of mid 20th century harmonies and a nod to the American Minimalists, as well as the composer’s own trademark ‘organic music’ (the use of natural materials such as stone, wood and water as percussion) and some traditional dancing.

Unlike Tan Dun’s 2000 Water Passion after St Matthew, the piece isn’t intended to be a new take on Bach’s large Passiontide works, but we can feel their influence on the work’s structure and content. Rather than scenes from Christ’s life, it is a prelude and six stories around the life and influence of the Buddha (two scenes from either end of his life – his attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and his entry into Nirvana – and four short Chinese parable tales exemplifying the tenets of Buddhism (‘The Deer of Nine Colours’; ‘A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes’; ‘Zen Garden’; ‘Heart Sutra’). ‘Arias’ as well as ‘recitative’ narrative and conversation from the soloists (the European standard soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass plus male and female indigenous singers and a dancer/pipa player) abound, and the chorus (on Sunday, the London Philharmonic Choir augmented by London Chinese Philharmonic Choir) plays the part of interlocutors, narrator and spiritual commentator (in particular, at the end of each section, they sing a take on a chorale, summing up, in each case ‘the compassion of the Buddha’).

“…a highly approachable work from the composer of the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…”

Buddha Passion

Batubagen & Shenyang (Photo: London Philharmonic Orchestra)

It was a tour de force of a performance: the solo work was crammed with Puccini-esque lyricism (the soprano passage “I well foresaw your betrayal…” in ‘The Deer of Nine Colours’, the tenor section “Is the wind or a banner moving?” in ‘Zen Garden’ and the king’s material in ‘A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes’ being just a few examples); the sounds of splashing water and the angrily muttering chorus of monks in ‘Zen Garden’ were a delight; the duet between the agile pianissimo soprano and the basso profundo of the throat-singing monk (sung by Batubagen, an exponent of the art) in ‘Heart Sutra’ was an unusual and affecting contrast of timbres.

Under Tan Dun’s baton, the orchestra provided not only rich string textures, but the occasional brass fanfares that punctuated a few of the morally summative chorales at the end of each movement were warm and vibrant; their rhythmic material (that hair-raising full on finale with syncopated drumming, for example) was exemplary.

Full marks must go to the chorus for their co-ordination and intonation, whether delivering unison lines, working in upper-part/lower-part contrast, singing full harmony, producing parlando chattering and expressions of surprise, essaying some of the massive upward portamenti that are a hallmark of the piece, or playing finger cymbals. For not a few of them, the languages of the piece (Chinese and Sanskrit) will have been a challenge, which they met with effortless élan.

All of the principal soloists turned in top-notch accounts. The soprano Sen Guo (who also doubled as the female indigenous singer) has a magnificent voice – opulent and powerful in the lower register, but bell-like above the stave; Huiling Zhu (mezzo) has a rich voice that nonetheless has edge to it, and her portrayal as the boy prince was full of character; Kang Wang’s clear tenor voice has a solidity to it consistent through its range. The bass/baritone Shenyang was perhaps the most familiar of the four, and it was enjoyable to hear the tone of his flexible voice tackle both the warm sonority of the king in ‘A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes’ and the gentle fading of the voice of the dying Buddha in ‘Nirvana’.

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