Monday, February 20, 2017

Music Under The Moon

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, presents, MUSIC UNDER THE MOON. A Lantern Festival Celebration, featuring Tan Dun, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House, 11 February, 2017.

Tan Dun is a contemporary Chinese orhestral music composer and conductor. He is most familiar to audiences because of his award winning music for the films CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO. This concert which is part of the Chinese New Year Festival marks the fifth visit of this musician to Sydney. His other compositions range from Concert to Opera. He uses traditions from Chinese music and Western composers, including the use of organic materials such as paper, water and stone to augment his instinctual visions for contemporary music. Memorably, a few years ago he collaborated with the Sydney Symphony in presenting some of the paper, water and stone concert pieces.

For this concert Maestro Dun, began with a work by Chinese composer, Guan Xia: 100 BIRDS FLYING TOWARDS THE PHOENIX - a short concerto for the symphony orchestra and featuring the traditional Chinese instrument, the suona (2000 years old), a double-reed woodwind instrument that has a sound that is a cross between an oboe and a muted trumpet, played by a guest soloist, Liu Wenwen. The principal tune is a reimagining of an old folk tune well-known throughout China. The virtuosic and thrilling performance by Liu Wenwen, struck me as that of a 'rooster' noise and was a delight and created a sense of wonder (particularly in the lengthy breath sections). The unique quality of the sound of the suona surrounded by the orchestration for a full size orchestra was a very exciting and exhilarating way to begin this concert performance.

This was followed by a work by Bela Bartok: THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN: SUITE (1924). Bartok had composed The Miraculous Mandarin as an one act ballet or 'pantomime' in the 1920's. This concert suite is drawn from the first two-thirds of the ballet and is organised in six movements. The work features a rich rhythmic life - perhaps influenced by Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring and perhaps the Song of the Nightingale) - using the characteristic Bartok use of melody and ornament, compositional techniques and typical motifs - barbaric allegros and erotic waltzes. It completed a trilogy of stage works: BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE (which is to be featured with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, later in the year) and THE WOODEN PRINCE. The work has an exciting and intriguing psycho-sexual energy reflecting the story of the ballet - a story that concerns a girl and three ruffians, seduction and capture of the Mandarin and death - and is typical of other works of the expressionist era such as Richard Strauss' Salome and Electra.

After the interval, Maestro Dun introduced us to his own composition: NU SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN - Symphony for 13 micro films, harp and orchestra.(2013). Nu Shu is an ancient syllabic script developed, secretly by women, over hundreds of years, in feudal China. It was passed on through the generations of the Chinese women and is the only known language that is gender specific, used and understood only by women. It records the traditions of the marriage rites and is usually written on women's most intimate and beautiful objects: handkerchiefs, fans, silk, belts, journals ... . Unlike most languages Nu Shu is not spoken but sung.

Tan Dun returned to his home province of Hunan to research and capture on film the unique culture and its ancient music. He spent over five years in the fields, filming over 200 hours of film. The Symphony is made up of 13 sections. On three screens are projected images of the calligraphy, women and the site of the village. There is pre-recorded song making from the old and young women that is surrounded and supported by a full (large) orchestral composition with the solo Harp as the bridge to the effect of the whole. Tan Dun selecting the Harp because of 'its beautiful feminine sounds' and distinctive physical shape. The Harp featured, virtuosically, the Symphony's Principal Harpist, Louise Johnson. The orchestration featured rock and water timpani sounds, as well. The combination of the visuals and the music built to a cathartic state of ecstasy as we saw and heard the clothing washing by the women of the village, in the local river, in an ancient and modern tradition. The effect was to transport one to an ethnographical and anthropological experience that seemed to subsume the 'ugliness' of contemporary life - I said to my companion: "What does Trump really matter?" We just shrugged and basked in the afterglow of spiritual inspiration and generosity.

My advice: Never miss a concert featuring the remarkable Tan Dun.

Two weeks in a row. Two experiences in the Sydney Opera House: firstly, LA TRAVIATA, with Ermonela Jaho, and secondly, the Tan Dun Concert (and guess what? not a burlesque performer in sight - a modern miracle, in the context of recent curation of performance by the Sydney Opera House Trust).

P.S. I must thank the program notes by Gordon Kalton Williams for information on the Bartok and Dun work. The Sydney Symphony program is free, as well.

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