Monday, April 13, 2015

Tan Dun’s Water Passion bathes all in excellence

By Douglas Neslund

Ten years ago, Maestro Grant Gershon and the peerless Los Angeles Master Chorale brought Chinese-born Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew” to Walt Disney Concert Hall. For a first reading, the near-operatic work electrified the audience (if water and electricity may safely be used in the same sentence). So when Water Passion was scheduled for reprise in the current season, a buzz developed around the weekend performances. As well it should have.

Carefully rehearsed over the past few weeks, the performance on Sunday was meticulously presented, with vocal soloists soprano-in-excelsis Delaram Kamareh and basso profundo-in-extremis Stephen Bryant dazzling in challenging roles that preclude nearly all potential soloists, given their respective tessituras alone. Stupendously high notes and long leaps not heard since Yma Sumac were the challenge, with Ms. Kamareh’s hands and arms dancing and text-shaping along. Mr. Bryant was asked to perform frequent Tibetan overtone throat and fry sounds, to one member of the audience a bit too frequently, especially at odd moments in the English text thankfully projected above the performers. His vocal production was prodigious and beautiful.

Also soloing to great effect were percussionists David Cossin, Theresa Dimond, John Wakefield and instrumentalists Shalini Vijayan (violin), Cécilia Tsan ('cello) and almost hidden behind the men’s chorus, Yuanlin Chen on the digital sampler.

Composer Tan Dun

Seventeen translucent bowls of water formed a cross on stage, and contained microphones to pick up the various hand slaps, what appeared to be tin cans bobbed on the water surface, and other sometimes bowed odd objects that created sound through the water. Each bowl was lit from below, with a color scheme to reflect various moods arising from the Passion story.

Throughout the work, Mr. Cossin, Ms. Dimond and Mr. Wakefield played in this watery world and were surrounded by kettle and bass drums, with Ms. Dimond having a set of chimes to play as well. Almost in traditional jazz format, Mr. Cossin was given a solo turn at one point, with astonishing adeptness with his bare hands, playing and perhaps inventing new rhythms along the way on what appeared to be miked gourds.

Regular patrons of Master Chorale performances have come to expect vocal perfection, and on this occasion, were richly rewarded with not only singing par excellence but also rock rubbing and banging, Tibetan bell tinkling, and during the brief thunder-and-lightning at the death of Jesus, realistic metallic thunder claps.

The absolute key to this enchanting evening was careful preparation. It was clear to those who witnessed the two decade-separated Passion performances that Maestro Gershon’s richly gifted subconscious right brain had been working through the many opportunities to bring light and maintain the translucence of the work, and devise a rehearsal plan accordingly. This was not a run-through, but a carefully thought-out process made public to a delighted audience, that rewarded all with an instant standing ovation, with protracted loud applause punctuated with “bravos” and shrieks one normally hears at a rock concert, demanding a five-bow after the tributary long silence that brought the work to a close, even after the stage lights came up. No one was even breathing. And no one noticed how quickly the 90-minute work sans intermission went.

Maestro Gershon

Master Chorale audiences of the future will be fortunate if composer Tan Dun’s Water Passion is once again scheduled in water-needy Los Angeles, and Maestro Gershon is still at the podium.


Photos courtesy of and Jamie Phan

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