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Tan Dun in Baltimore

Tan Dun, photo by Parnassus Productions, Inc. (courtesy of
For all of the breathless excitement, including our own, over Marin Alsop's appointment as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, she will actually conduct only three concerts in Charm City this fall (beginning on September 28, October 25, and November 29). This week, joining the parade of guest conductors filling in for Alsop was Chinese-American composer Tan Dun. We have reviewed two of his operas, Tea and The First Emperor, but this was the first time we have reviewed the cello concerto titled The Map, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004. Tan has described the piece as an exploration of his return to his natal province of Hunan, where he spent time trying to document disappearing musical traditions.

Building on the theme of folk music's intertwined history with the classical orchestra, Tan programmed a first half of Russian pieces based on or at least reminiscent of Asian melodies. The relatively late Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes, op. 115, was conceived during Dmitri Shostakovich's visit to Kirghizstan, when he promised to write a piece based on the local folk music. The overture was premiered in Frunze, the capital of Kirghizstan, in 1963, and it is definitely a second-tier piece in the Shostakovich works list, less dissonant and plainer in orchestration than his most interesting work. However, it gained in interest considerably as part of this program, as an example of the overlap between Chinese and Russian music. The BSO sounded confident, although Tan's conducting seemed to be at odds with the direction of the musicians at times.

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Tan Dun, The Map, A. Karttunen, Shanghai SO, Tan Dun
Far more familiar to audiences, although many could probably name neither composer nor title, was Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. When Igor loses his campaign against the Asian nomads known as the Polovtsi, their Khan entertains him with music and dancing. Once again, the chestnut status of these pieces seemed to fade into the background because of the context of this fascinating program, inviting the listener to re-examine the work in a new light. After an overly fast start, the pace of the first dance settled into a more comfortable pace, but Tan did not seem to have paid attention to some of the melodic lines, which were not brought to the fore. The winds shimmered exotically and the low brass and percussion shook the rafters with their big booming sound. The melody that became Stranger in Paradise in the musical Kismet purled into the house without any sentimental soupiness, which was pleasing.

Tan Dun, The Map, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Latitude of Tan Dun's 'Map' rivets attention (Baltimore Sun, October 13)

Grace Jean, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, October 13)

Karren Alenier, Tan Dun Brings the Stone Man to the Concert Hall (The Dressing, October 14)
When Tan spoke to the audience after the Shostakovich overture on the first half, he said that the concert's theme was the roots of each composer in his own time and in the musical traditions beyond the concert hall. During trips to Hunan in 1999 and 2001, Tan imitated his acknowledged hero, Béla Bartók (who also tried "to find vanished people's music"), by speaking with and videotaping traditional musicians. Those video clips, some barely different from hand-held, clutzy-zoomed home video footage, are displayed on screens on the stage with the orchestra. Following cues from the soundtrack of the video, Tan synchronized the orchestral texture to what we see and hear, creating a dialogue between the orchestra in Baltimore and the musicians recorded in China. This called for the BSO to use their instruments in orthodox ways, with the reed players, for example, answering the guanzi and a Tuija man making sounds by blowing through a buzzing leaf by playing with their reeds separated from the instruments.

The climax of the work is a recreation of a musical style that Tan saw in Hunan in the 1980s but was not able to document on his later trips, stone drumming. Three recreations by performers on the video screens play a quartet with one of the percussionists live. It was a memorable moment. Principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn had the thankless task of channeling Yo-Yo Ma and played well, although the solo part was sometimes covered by noisy percussion or the video soundtrack. At one point, Finkelshteyn had a beautiful dialogue with concertmaster Jonathan Carney, their instruments warbling on the high strings like two loquacious birds. Although this concert was much appreciated by the audience, there were lots of empty seats at the back of Meyerhoff Hall. More students out there need to take advantage of the BSO's incredible Student Advantage offers: $10 rush tickets and a five-for-$25 student subscription plan! Five dollars for a concert: that is much cheaper than a movie.

The next concerts by the Baltimore Symphony will feature HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!, with the eclectic composer conducting (October 19 at Strathmore and October 20 at the Meyerhoff).


Evan Tucker said...

Give us students some time. Word of the offers will get out and in a few years time young people will replenish (some of) the hall. I'm optimistic that it's only a matter of time.

Charles T. Downey said...

Glad to hear it! Get the word out.