Tan Dun at the Sydney Opera House

It is rare to have the opportunity to hear an Oscar winning film music composer’s music played live in Sydney, even rarer to hear him conduct his own work. I was very excited to discover that the Chinese composer Tan Dun would be conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing a suite from his score to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It a wonderful score featuring the exotic sounds of asian instruments rarely heard in Western music.

While I have been listening to the CD sountrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for over a year, I had not seen the movie until the previous night. Hearing that it featured beautiful photography, I did not join my wife in watching the very poor quality pirate copy that her brother obtained. Instead I waited until I could watch it in widescreen DVD glory. I didn’t regret it, for the scenery is sumptious, the action sequences rival anything else I’ve every seen and the background music is perfect for the visuals.

Fresh from watching the movie, I greatly anticipated listening to a live performance of the score. I was also excited about sitting in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House. Despite living in Sydney for eight years, the closest I had got was a small theatre in the basement of the Opera House.

The performance began with Shostakovich’s Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes. I quite enjoyed this piece, along with Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances later in the night. I can’t say I would go out of my way to hear them again, but I am certain their rich tones are better heard live then recorded.

Tan Dun’s Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra was a lot of fun, both a visual and tonal feast. The front two rows of audience donned plastic raincoats prior to the start, so I knew it was a performance that would make a splash!

The concerto began with eerie bowed sounds that I think would have frightened many a superstitious Chinese with its ghostly tones. The pace then quickened and so did the water action. Three large glass bowls of water were mounted at the front of the stage. Partially submerged gongs and agogos, upturned bowls and glasses, a colander and even hand splashing were all employed to produce lively percussion. Other interesting instruments used in the piece included a enclosed metal cavity with an handle and thin metal rods attached to the outsides. These were bowed to give a very interesting sound. The classic thong-a-phone; a long plastic tube hit with a piece of sole shapped rubber gave a familiar echo.

Despite the distinct avante-garde and somewhat unmelodic nature of the piece it was a wonderful performance.

Tan Dun’s other composition of the night was an arrangement of the music from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The score is one of my favourites, the sounds of traditional Asian instruments making for a rich listening experience. Sadly, there were no such instruments to be heard on the night and the performance suffered greatly for it.

Replacing one of the intruments was a cardboard tube attached to a microphone and speaker. Played like a “thong-a-phone” and using electronic feedback the tube replicated one of the traditional instruments to a certain extent.

The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon performance was still enjoyable and although the cello soloist Maya Beisel is not Yo-Yo Ma, she certainly put passion into her playing. The percussion was exciting and it was fascinating to watch the brass and strings section produce so very different sounds.

A very enjoyable evening.

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