Under Tan Dun’s Baton, Bows and High Fives as East Meets West

10.27.09
Cho-Liang Lin
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

For all his accomplishments and accolades, Tan Dun is a genuinely gracious celebrity. An Academy Award winner with a Metropolitan Opera commission under his belt, Mr. Tan is the only composer to have a concert of his own during Carnegie Hall’s festival Ancient Paths, Modern Voices.

Yet at the event, presented at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center on Monday night, Mr. Tan redirected praise toward his collaborators: the Juilliard School musicians playing his works; the violinist Cho-Liang Lin, featured in the premiere of Mr. Tan’s Violin Concerto; and the school itself.

The program was shrewdly chosen. In four pieces you got a remarkably good overview of Mr. Tan’s stylistic development.

The quirky instrumentation of “Concerto for Six” is that of the ensemble it was written for, the Bang on a Can All-Stars: bass clarinet, guitar, cello, double bass, piano and percussion.

An exuberant piece from 1997, “Concerto for Six,” showed Mr. Tan’s knack for juxtaposing Chinese and Western idioms. In one jazzy exchange Sean Rice, the bass clarinetist, played bluesy bends over Kyle Brightwell’s patter of cymbals. Elsewhere, musicians shouted Chinese numerals; Cameron O’Connor fluttered on his guitar strings in a manner reminiscent of a pipa player’s technique; and Conor Hanick stroked a piano’s strings as if playing a guzheng.

“Silk Road,” a 1989 setting of a whimsical poem by Arthur Sze, for soprano and percussion, mixed atonal vocal lines with the mannered delivery and explosive cadences of Beijing opera. Mr. Tan is exceptionally skilled at writing for percussion, fashioning the subtlest gradations of touch and timbre. Michael Truesdell, the percussionist, played with sensitivity and dexterity; Jennifer Zetlan was an extraordinary partner, singing with technical assurance, gleaming tone and abundant charisma.

“Secret Land,” a 2006 work for 12 cellos, alternated solos and duos in modes explicitly redolent of Chinese idioms, with murky swarms of collective motion. More effective as a catalog of effects than as a sustained utterance, the work at least demonstrated the depth of Juilliard’s cello department.

Mr. Tan’s new Violin Concerto, subtitled “The Love,” showed the more approachable side he has recently favored. The piece — in three continuous sections meant to evoke young love, romantic love and philosophical love —included material reworked from an earlier violin concerto, “Out of Peking Opera.”

The opening section, “Hip Hop,” was lean and angular, with free-time violin soliloquies and violent outbursts. But a steady funk-rock drum beat and brash whoops from the brass section made the music unusually playful and accessible.

The middle movement, “Malinconia,” recalled Mr. Tan’s lushest film-score work; Mr. Lin’s warm playing was surrounded with a plush bed of strings. Energy dipped slightly during the final section, “Dramatico,” with its constant shifts of pace and mood. But Mr. Lin’s exuberant playing held your attention, and Mr. Tan drew a performance of exceptional assurance from the Juilliard Orchestra.