Tan Dun’s Water Passion After St. Matthew, given last night by Soundstreams at Trinity St. Paul’s is very Tan Dun. The work is in nine movements and scored for chorus, soprano and bass-baritone soloists, violin, cello, electronics and lots of percussion. And bowls of water and rocks. The texts broadly follow the Passion story finishing with a final Resurrection movement in which water is the symbol of rebirth, recycling and spiritual completeness. There are also ritual elements. Bowls of water laid out in a cruciform pattern are lit from beneath. The musicians change position and the players, especially the percussionists, perform hieratic gestures with the water bowls and their contents. It also involves a complex and dramatic lighting plot.
The first half I found to be a little overlong. There were interesting musical ideas but they were often stretched out well beyond the interest they could sustain. It’s not the first Tan Dun piece that has evoked that reaction in me! The second half seemed tighter and more dramatic. Perhaps this is because the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are intrinsically more dramatic than the episodic build up but also the sections seemed tighter and more focussed. There’s heavier use of the stone and water theme too in the second half with the chorus getting in on the action in Give us Barabbas!
The performances were fully committed and very effective. Stephen Bryant coped admirably with a part that had an absurdly wide vocal range and frequently demanded extended periods of overtone singing. Carla Huhtanen was also in her element in a part that required some real singing as well as screams and snarls. Choir 21 coped with the very varied choral writing extremely well. There are places where Dun seems to use the choir almost as another element of the percussion section (and not just when they are actually banging rocks together!) and when needed the chorus responded with plenty of attack. Erika Raum on violin had some very lyrical music to play but also had, I think, to imitate the sound of certain traditional Chinese instruments. It was nicely done. David Hetherington on cello was equally effective. Percussionists Michelle Colton, Aiyun Huang and Ryan Scott had most of the watery things to do as well as rock banging and a wide range of more conventional tasks. Some of it was sort of staged in a ritualistic way too. Nicely done. David Fallis conducted in his usual cool, calm and entirely efficient way holding together a performance that can’t have been made easier for the performers by the frequently changing lighting.
Overall, the piece had the effect on me that all the other music by this composer has had. There are striking effects and ideas that border on genius but often they seem to be extended well past their sell by date.