MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion

Composer Tan Dun (Courtesy of Tan Dun)

I wrote in advance about this week’s visit to Seattle Symphony by Tan Dun. Thursday night he conducted the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, and guest soloists in a moving performance of his Buddha Passion.

Here are excerpts from my review of the US premiere of Buddha Passion, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in 2019:

LOS ANGELES—A signature of Tan Dun’s most successful compositions is his gift for mixing putatively disparate elements into powerfully original amalgams. To make that happen means being able to take serious risks—and the premise behind Buddha Passion is nothing if not bold. The audience’s euphoric reaction at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a cast of guest performers under Gustavo Dudamel gave the United States premiere on February 8, confirmed the tangible impact of Tan’s wildly imaginative gamble here.

Buddha Passion uses the rough outlines of the Christian Passion oratorio as a vehicle to explore the life and teachings of the Buddha. Tan drew inspiration specifically from the Mogao Caves outside the northwestern Chinese city of Dunhuang. These encompass over a millennium’s worth of murals and sculpture relating to Buddhism as well as artifacts that even contain evidence about the music of this period. xx`

It’s fitting that Dunhuang was an ancient Silk Road outpost, since, on multiple levels, Buddha Passion stages a meeting place for diverse cultural phenomena: not only between the Passion format of the Christian West and Buddhism but between the Western orchestra/chorus and a Chinese-inflected soundscape, populist folk idioms and innovative “high art,” music, theater, and visual art. 

Tan’s Water Passion from 2000 responded directly to the Christian model, representing a millennial, global perspective on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In my view, Buddha Passion’s looser connection to the Passion idea—the composer also conceives of it as an opera—has resulted in a much more compelling work of art that transcends surface novelty and achieves a moving coherence on its own terms.

Over its two hours (including one intermission), Buddha Passion unfolds in six “acts,” each using a famous story associated with the Buddha himself or his teachings and sharing a core message of compassion, underscored by a recurrent chant motif. Tan distributes the voice of the Buddha among his various soloists and the chorus. In the first act, for example, the death of a bird leads Little Prince (sung by mezzo Huling Zhu) on his path to enlightenment. The stories share the clarity and directness of folk tales—such as the Deer of Nine Colors (soprano Sen Guo), a benevolent force who is killed by a man she has saved from drowning (tenor Kang Wang), or a contest of minds in the Zen tale of a woodcutter (bass-baritone Shenyang) whose wisdom awes the Master Monk. Yet from such simple elements and easily recognizable music gestures, Tan has constructed a monumental and richly complex work.

His instrumental resources blend the Western orchestra with an expanded percussion section including Tan’s hallmark “organic” sound sources from water and wood. In one scene, the fantan pipa virtuosa and dancer Chen Yining enchanted by setting the scene for a magnificent palace. 

Tan crafted his own libretto from original sources (a few bits in Sanskrit, the majority in Mandarin), and the LA Master Chorale as well as LA Children’s Chorus were also called on to incorporate Chinese techniques, including extensive glissandi.

Paradise seems never to be as conducive as the stumbling blocks to get there when it comes to inspiring art, and at moments I worried that Tan’s mellifluous, long-limbed melodies would become too syrupy. But context is everything here, and I found the sincerity of these gestures to be enhanced by the enormous variety of stimuli—not only musical—with which Buddha Passion teems, so that these moments served an emotional purpose similar to the directness of the narratives. 

The most powerful foil to potential sentimentality came in the indelible fifth act (“Heart Sutra”), which recounts the tragic meeting between a minstrel monk and Nina, a woman from the West who dies in his arms. With contributions by two indigenous artists taking center stage here—the Mongolian throat singer and Batubagen, also playing erhu, and the singer-actress Tan Weiwei—the intensity of this section made it stand apart as an opera-within-the-passion. Yet it was also brilliantly integrated into the narrative flow Tan had established. 

This passage also underscored the success of another facet of the composer’s fusion in this work: the ability to weave ancient, folk-based music and traditions into his unique language. Elsewhere in Buddha Passion we heard dense harmonic clusters radiating an Ivesian aura while, punctuating the finales of both parts (acts three and six), vibrant, tumultuous dithyrambs of rhythmic energy. This Buddha, when awakened, is not one to go gently into that good night. 

Filed under: review, Seattle Symphony, Tan Dun

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