Classical CD Reviews

TAN DUN: Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theatre; Concerto for Orchestra – Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch./ Tan Dun – Naxos

The two big works here are fine indeed and are conducted with panache by the composer himself.

Published on February 16, 2013

TAN DUN: Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theatre; Concerto for Orchestra – Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch./ Tan Dun – Naxos

TAN DUN: Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theatre; Concerto for Orchestra – Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch./ Tan Dun – Naxos 8.570608, 64:51 ****:

Right up front, I’d like to confess that I’m somewhat chastened by this Naxos release. It’s a good reminder that first impressions, while powerful, shouldn’t be the last work in relationships. The first piece by Tan Dun that I heard, quite a while ago, featured on one of those free discs from BBC Music, convinced me that I didn’t need to hear any more of the composer. Snooty one that I am, his hit film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, seemed to confirm for me that Tan Dun was a musical panderer, and I let it go at that. Until hearing the present recording, that is.

Admittedly, it does embrace what seems to be the two very distinct sides of Tan Dun’s musical makeup: his too-easy embrace of popular-music trends à la Leonard Bernstein (Symphonic Poem on Three Notes), as well as a far more serious facet of his music-making, through which he seems to wish to ally himself with modern masters such as Bartók and Lutosławski (Concerto for Orchestra). Maybe I should just accept the fact that Bernstein was the typical Prophet in His Own Land—bucking trends in the ‘60s, anticipating the post-modernist trends of the current century that inform Tan Dun’s music. Call me a hopeless elitist, but I still think if composers too slavishly mimic the popular music of their own time, no matter how talented they are, they at some point they end up sounding seriously dated. Tan Dun may indeed be talented enough that forty or fifty years hence folks will be making the same excuses for some of his music that you hear made for Bernstein’s Mass. Hard to say. But there’s Bernstein and then there’s Bernstein: there’s the often embarrassing Mass and the always uplifting Chichester Psalms; there’s the “hip” Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, which sounds just as dead as the big bands that inspired it, and the still-fresh Jeremiah Symphony of a few years earlier.

All of which is to say that some of Tan Dun sounds to me far too easy, far too willing to please. But then again, works like the Concerto for Orchestra show that he hasn’t sold his soul for temporary relevance. This seems to me a work that does everything we expect of the genre: it provides a showcase for the various sections of the orchestra and does so in a way that is ceaselessly entertaining and engaging. Certainly, there are pop-musical influences at work here, but there’s a freshness of inspiration, and a breathtaking command of instrumental timbre, that I think will buffer the Concerto from future staleness. At least I’m pretty sure audiences in the future will want to hear it.

The Concerto was written just last year; remarkably, the much earlier Orchestral Theatre (1990) sounds like a series of preparatory sketches for the later work—not that Orchestral Theatre is lacking in any way on its own terms. It’s a work of confidence and stature, though ultimately not as memorable. According to Tan Dun’s notes to the recording, it deals mostly in musical atmosphere, lacking the elaborate program of Concerto for Orchestra, which takes off from the action of the composer’s opera Marco Polo. The four movements of the Concerto chart the “three different journeys” of the explorer: “geographical, musical and spiritual.” The first movement represents Marco Polo’s “spiritual journey through time and space,” while the later movements take him to an Eastern bazaar, the Indian desert, and finally the Forbidden City. If this program helps you enjoy the music more, that’s fine. For me, both the Concerto and Orchestral Theatre make forceful statements as absolute music, which the junky occasional music of Symphonic Poem on Three Notes (written in dubious honor of Placido Domingo’s seventieth birthday) throws into stark and highly complimentary contrast.

In all three works, however, Tan Dun presents himself as a first-rate advocate of his own music. The Hong Kong Philharmonic plays for him as if it has a natural handle on all the influences in these pieces, including Western ones—hip-hop, rock, and jazz. OK, so I won’t be returning to the Symphonic Poem; there’s enough good music here to make me glad I gave Tan Dun another listen. I’ll certainly be listening in the future.

—Lee Passarella

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