Picture credit: Zen Grisdale

Passion and percussion

Two tastes of Chinese culture in London

Artillery Row On Music

Tan Dun: Buddha Passion, LPO, Royal Festival Hall, 22 January

Beibei Wang and Tangram: Wu Xing – Five Elements LSO St Luke’s, 28 January

In the week that Chinese communities welcomed in the Year of the Rabbit, two music dramas celebrating Chinese culture attracted packed audiences to London venues. At the South Bank, Tan Dun conducted the versatile LPO and outstanding soloists in the UK premiere of his Buddha Passion. The performances drew symphonic music lovers and fans of his film scores, most notably the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. An “oratorio” in six acts — each a story taken from the life of the Buddha — was inspired by a visit to the ancient Mogao cave paintings, where Tan imagined he could hear sounds emanating from the music-themed murals. He compiled a libretto for the Buddha Passion in Chinese, English and Sanskrit, then composed one of his typically colourful, evocative and spiritual scores. 

Batubagen performs on a virtually extinct Chinese bowed string instrument

A calm, beatific presence in conversation, on the podium Tan Dun is a man with a mission. He leans into the orchestra, goading and pointing until he gets the sound he is searching for. His big orchestral scores are often described as cinematic — shorthand for acres of lush strings and golden horns, punctuated by the earthy, scratchy sounds of fragile acoustic instruments. The LPO percussion section frolics in a playground of giant Chinese drums, Tibetan singing bowls, temple bells, deep bowls of water and unnameable objects (members of the choir are given two pebbles to clack together). A quartet of opera-trained singers — the same one assembled for the work’s premiere in Dresden in 2018 — represent the Buddha and the characters he encounters, whilst the LPO Chorus and London Chinese Philharmonic Choir provide commentary and the chorales that end each act.

There’s an all-too-brief dance sequence in Act 3 when Yining Chen, graceful in a gauzy white jumpsuit, dances with her pipa (a Chinese lute the size of a small cello), balancing it above her head whilst performing arabesques. Another highlight is the dashing vocalist Batubagen, who produces throat-singing of such bone-shaking profundity — learnt in his early years of sheep-farming in Inner Mongolia — that I had to laugh in admiration. His performance on the Dunhuang xiqin, (a virtually extinct Chinese bowed string instrument) adds to the arsenal of sound effects.

Tan Dun started his musical life in a community band in a rice-planting region during the Cultural Revolution before studying at the Beijing Conservatory and later Columbia University. He was one of the first composers to infuse symphonic works with spiritual and musical elements from Chinese culture. Tonight’s concert-hall setting grounds the Buddha Passion in a conventional Western classical music context. 

Later in the week, at LSO St Luke’s, the gravity-defying young virtuoso percussionist Beibei Wang, who has performed many of Tan’s best-known works for percussion, showed what the next generation of Chinese-heritage musicians can do. Wu Xing — Five Elements is woven from fragments of music and ancient stories she remembers from her Chinese childhood. Beibei was the sort of child who emptied the pan cupboard onto the floor and upended the dog’s bowl to make new sounds. She admits she hasn’t changed much — tonight she’s evicted her plants from their Ikea plastic pots to add to the bank of percussion objects. Taking as her inspiration the five elements — earth, wood, fire, water and metal, which are said to interact according to traditional Chinese cosmology — she relates them to the physical and spiritual properties of percussion instruments, from the hand-made earth flutes to wood blocks and metal bells. 

They dispel the myth that Chinese music is simple pentatonic melodies

Beibei is a founding artist of Tangram, a nine-strong ensemble formed in 2018 by British-Chinese composer Alex Ho and Chinese-American yangqin player and singer-songwriter Reylon Yount. Beibei leads from her drum kit, rather like a Classical ensemble led from the harpsichord. She darts between instruments, semaphoring with her sticks, whilst the musicians move theatrically between their instruments. Their call and responses — on yangqin (hammered dulcimer), Western and Chinese flutes, pipa, ruan and sanxian (variously shaped Chinese lutes) and cello — are like conversations between characters in a play. The presence of a Peking Opera singer, mannered, grave and comic, twirling a series of long wispy beards and gesturing with his extra-long cuffs, lifts the performance into a strange, mesmerising world. He sings, speaks and shouts in several languages, mocking the audiences with his spiky interventions.

Light effects play across the stately pillars of the old church — hot flickering reds for fire; cool blue and finally diamond white for the closing section, water. Four large water bowls descend in height like waterfalls towards the audience, and the abiding image as the music fades is of black-clad players stooping over the luminous bowls like Macbeth’s witches. Time stands still as the hands scoop and release the water in hypnotic rhythms. The piece is over in exactly one hour, but it is as satisfying as a full-length opera.

These two performances, with their inventive, sophisticated musical language, dispel the myth that Chinese music is just simple pentatonic melodies. The enthusiasm greeting each show suggests that there is a healthy interest in Chinese culture, whether it comes in a conventional orchestral performance or a cooler, multi-tasking ensemble. Tangram are currently Associate Artists at LSO St Luke’s, and their projects always attract a diverse and curious audience. It was heartening to see parents risking the wrath of other audience members by bringing lively and (for the most part) engaged small children to both concerts. Spellbound by whirling percussionists beating the heck out of giant drums, they will soon be old enough to buy tickets for themselves.

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