March 22, 2005


MUSIC REVIEW: Baptism of 'Saint Matthew': Water lends aural and visual texture to Tan Dun's 'Passion' in a stirring local premiere by the Master Chorale. (Mark Swed, March 22, 2005, LA Times)

In Tan Dun's ritualistic "Water Passion After Saint Matthew," given its local premiere Sunday night by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Bach takes a bath. So do singers, percussionists and anyone sitting too close to the stage, on which large, translucent bowls of water serve as percussion instruments.

The "Water Passion" was the fourth of four extraordinary new musical passions after the Gospels of Luke, Mark, John and Matthew commissioned by the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, to celebrate the millennium in 2000.

German composer Wolfgang Rihm took his inspiration from Luke, using the story of Jesus' last days to question belief in a country with historical blood on its hands. Using John as her source, the Russian Sophia Gubaidulina wrote perhaps her most ravishingly mystical work, a 90-minute piece she has since expanded. Osvaldo Golijov, a Jew who grew up in Argentina, presented a black Jesus, an outsider who rocked to South and Central American rhythms. "La Pasión Según San Marcos" was the big hit of the bunch and made the composer, now living in America, a classical music celebrity.

But it was the even weirder "Water Passion" that created the greatest curiosity. Tan grew up in Maoist China barely aware of Judeo-Christian tradition, let alone Bach. Here, then, was a composer who had become adept at mingling Western and Chinese music, at combining popular music devices with those from the avant-garde, confronting one of the most revered masterpieces in sacred art: Bach's "Saint Matthew" Passion.

For Tan, Jesus was not the outsider, he was. He read Matthew as someone far more tuned in to Taoist thought than Christian belief. He was struck by physical elements in this Gospel, by water, sand and stone. Especially water.

Having just completed a water percussion concerto for the New York Philharmonic, Tan then read of the baptism and needed no more encouragement. He placed three large bowls for three percussionists at the points of a cross onstage, then added a row of vessels through the middle of the chorus in which soloists and singers could take a ceremonial elbow bath at the end.

Tan presents the Passion story as something akin to Chinese opera, but Chinese opera with a window on the West.

NPR did a good story on him and the piece a couple years ago. If you watch the recent Gospel of John you get a nice feel for just how elemental the story is.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2005 8:02 AM
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