Bartók, Dance Suite Sz.77 et al., Boulez, CSO
Tan Dun, Ghost Opera, Kronos Quartet
Tan Dun et al., Pipa Concerto..., Bashmet / Moscow Soloists / Wu Man
Before the Spaniard was on the program, it was Bartók’s turn. Simplistically speaking, you trade in melody for compelling rhythm with the Hungarian master—and, assuming you are receptive to that, you feel enriched by it. That’s true for most of his major orchestral pieces, although in the Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz.77 the equation doesn’t work out for me. The moments of lyricism amid a hectic, craggy landscape of various ethically flavored dance rhythms, with brief, disoriented outbursts, strikes me as more random than well integrated. Barring greater exposure to the work, it can easily make the impression of bits and pieces plugged from the scores of several movies, filmed on original locations.
Tan Dun’s own music, incidentally, makes a not dissimilar impression. The Pipa Concerto—for that Chinese zither that looks half like a lute and sounded like a metallic banjo whenever pipa virtuoso Shao Rong strummed the amplified instrument vigorously—is heavily based on his 1999 “Ghost Opera” for String Quartet and Pipa (which remains my favorite Tan Dun work). But the mix of western orchestra and sounds that, for western ears, embody the very stereotype of Chinese music is responsible for the very brew that made his opera “The First Emperor” interesting for half an hour and unbearable thereafter. The tried and culturally correct “East-meets-West” concept sounds awfully tired nowadays and third rate Puccini interrupted by collective “Yao Yao” grunts from the orchestra musicians just isn’t musically uplifting.
That grunting—and the players’ foot-stomping—caused the typical (unintended) merriment in the audience. While those moments don’t tempt me to resort to superficially amused or discomfited laughter, they make me cringe with vicarious embarrassment, teeth gnashing. (It’s one thing for four autonomous string quartet players to do it, another matter when an orchestra is coerced into doing that sort of stuff so far removed from their real expertise.) The actual moment of wit came when Tan Dun employs the sound of an orchestra tuning before he hurls himself into an unambiguously gorgeous Adagio where the orchestra finally plays music from its realm: a cantilena that has romanticized Bach at its base and Chinese spices for color.
The engrossing Pipa mastery of a player like Shao Rong would be much better served in a concert and venue specifically chosen for it. Folded into a still born orchestral chimera, the genuinely interesting pipa elements are robbed of their context and come across as no more authentically Chinese than spring rolls at McDonalds.
The novelty of the concerto, to those who heard it for the first time, may have been more interesting than the recycled conventionalism of Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto. True, it sounds like a “Soundtrack to a movie unscreened”, the thematic material is risibly short and its development haphazard, but it offers dreamy pleasantness (Lento) married to overt tempestuousness (Allegro Vivace) showing that orchestral exclamations and shouts are not necessary to create color and exoticisms. Brass squeaks enriched by wooden percussion and Nibelungen-worthy ambos hammering (Taiko drums, actually) all appear; strings and piano solo part are treated no differently to Ravel or Poulenc. It’s a shallow joyride, shamelessly romantic in the gong-heavy slow movement which is a Classic FM suitable representation of “Water” (=strings). That element and “Fire”, from the first movement, are combined in the third, where the tinkling of piano, piccolo solo, plodding piano clusters, and evocations of the pipa by the strings suggest, once more, Ravel’s piano concertos. It takes some time to find its natural conclusion which it does when Lang Lang, the soloist on duty, finishes with —literally—fist-banging chords and elbow-dragging arpeggios: conceits that the audience variously found an exciting fancy or infuriating mockery.