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A Tale of Wonder and Transformation: Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion

Images courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra

London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted Chinese-born American composer and conductor Tan Dun on 22 January, who conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir, and the London Chinese Philharmonic Choir (in their first collaboration) for the UK debut of his expansive musical sutra Buddha Passion, which is inspired by Tan Dun’s visit to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, China. And what an auspicious way to bid farewell to the Year of the Tiger and welcome the Year of the Rabbit as we celebrated the Chinese New Year! There was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall and a standing ovation endured for this rousing landmark performance.

Tan Dun’s professional credits are long and impressive, and this was clearly a profoundly personal project for him—one with a message that transcends geography, race, and time. In this profound work, Tan Dun has brought the “musical murals” of the Mogao Caves, and the manuscripts that were once safeguarded therein, into the realm of “angels,” as Tan Dun calls music: angels that bridge the past and the present and cultural differences with messages of compassion and love.

Performed in six parts, the dialogue of the opera Buddha Passion—not that it is strictly an opera—was transcribed in Chinese, Sanskrit, and English, which was invaluable for helping the audience to keep abreast of the sung conversations, humorous exchanges, and mantra performances, and also useful for setting scenes. And once I understood what Tan Dun had envisaged in those moments, I could close my eyes and lose myself in the esoteric soundscape. For this was indeed a cinematic experience: chorals that staccato’d impeccably as they slid like oil on a frozen stream, while otherworldly voices echoed the power of old Hollywood romantic orchestral epics.

Tan Dun invited us into the resonance of those ancient grottoes as the evening opened with a scarcely audible hum of violin, and the ebbing and flowing of a heart-like throb that offered something almost visceral throughout the performance. The solemnity of a solitary church bell haunted us as much as the sweet melody that was fleetingly and subtly jarred with a sliding broken-glass sound reminiscent (to me) of the reality-behind-the-code-of-illusion sound used in the movie The Matrix

Tingsha, pebbles, wood, and singing bowls, as well as a chorus of bells sounded for the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Dripping water took us into a Zen garden, and performer Yining Chen floated in as an apsara, dancing through the orchestra, plucking at her pipa, and transporting us into a grand palace.

You could have heard a pin drop when we found ourselves amid the freezing desert of Dunhuang, as vocalist Batubagen took the stage with his indigenous singing performance and his playing of a stringed instrument taken straight off the venerable cave walls. This ancient instrument, called a Dunhuang xiqin, seemed to captivate the audience. Sen Guo then sang a duet with Batubagen, with her soulful yet perfectly frail and heart-wrenching dialogue during the Heart Sutra

Tan Dun’s aim was to transform ancient Buddhist cave paintings into musical expression, but by following in the grand tradition of classical Christian Passions composed by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach. In so doing, he aimed to marry East and West in the life of the young Prince Siddhartha, carrying through to his enlightenment, his spiritual teachings, and ancestor stories; tragedy and humor delivered with epic orchestral sounds that would fill any cathedral, and with the wonderful voices of Huiling Zhu, Kang Wang, and Shenyang, which would have been at home in any opera house.

There were a few standout moments for me: the aforementioned indigenous singing, the stillness of Nirvana, the Zen garden, among others . . .

If you enjoy a choral experience, orchestral operatic theater, the solemnity of grand classical cinema echoing, with religious reverence, the halls of a spectacular Christian abbey, this inspiring performance is definitely one not to be missed. If you prefer a stronger fusion of the musical traditions of East and West, an exotic mix of vocal styles and instruments, then perhaps this is not for you?

What is for everyone, however, are the messages this Passion transmits: the timeless, borderless, profound Buddhist message and teaching of compassion.

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