March 23, 2005

MUSIC: Los Angeles Master Chorale / Tan Dun, Water Passion after St. Matthew

Went to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale last night, performing Tan Dun's Water Passion after St. Matthew. It's scored for chorus (about 65 singers in this performance), soprano and bass soloists, violin, cello, 3 percussionists, and digital sampler, which is occasionally used to alter the acoustic sounds of the other performers.

The piece is very theatrical, starting with the stage setup. Seventeen large basins filled with water, each one lit from below, form a cross on the stage. (At Walt Disney Concert Hall, the size and shape of the stage forced the ends of the crossbar to curve towards the audience, making it look more like a pitchfork than a cross, which might not be a good omen for a piece of sacred music...). The women of the chorus sit in the upstage left quadrant of the cross; the men are upstage right. The bass and violin are downstage, in front of the women; the soprano and cello in front of the men. The conductor and the three percussionists stand at the end of the arms of the cross.

Those basins of water aren't merely decorative; they're used by the percussionists for some pretty nifty effects. Gongs are struck, then lowered into water, which does very odd things to the sound. A large tube is lowered into the water, and the open end struck with a foam mallet; raising and lowering the tube alters the pitch. And frequently, the percussionists are simply slapping the water in rhythm; I was astonished at how rapidly that could be done without losing precision or clarity of the sound.

The demands on the vocal soloists (Stephen Bryant and Elizabeth Keusch, who sang the world premiere of the piece in 2000) are extreme. The bass is called on to sing some extremely low notes -- a low C, certainly, and I think it may have gone down as far as B-flat -- and Bryant's enunciation in that register was dazzling. He's also required (as are the men of the chorus) to do some Tuvan overtone singing. The soprano part includes the high-pitched yelps associated with Chinese opera, and she's also called on for a fair amount of Sprechstimme. (One such passage, early in the piece, depicts the temptation of Christ in the desert; as Keusch repeats the words "If you are the Son of God," her inflections and rhythms reminded me of nothing so much as Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz: "I'll get you, my Jesus...") Both Bryant and Keusch were superb, and every word could be understood (often a pet peeve of mine with classical soloists).

Much of the choral singing is in chorale style, a nod to Bach, I would assume (the piece was commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death), though the harmonic language certainly isn't Bach's. The chorus's words were occasionally a bit muddy, despite Tan Dun's best efforts to make them clear; final sibilants, for instance, are often extended ("darknesssssssssss"). Text was printed in the program, but the house lights were completely dimmed, making it useless.

There are some striking moments in the piece. The depiction of the Last Supper ends with a cadenza for water percussion (this is the moment in the piece where the electronic distortion of acoustic sounds is most noticable). Later, the crowd's taunts of Christ on the cross, sung by the chorus, get their instrumental accompaniment from the chorus as well, each singer striking together a pair of stones in frenzied rhythm.

The Water Passion is about 90 minutes long, and while it's relatively accessible as contemporary music goes, it is a complicated piece (a few folks crept out during the short re-tuning break between the two halves of the piece, which was performed without intermission). I know that I didn't entirely get everything that was going on, or follow all of the logic of the piece. But thanks to this fine performance, directed by Grant Gershon, I know equally well that the piece is worth getting, and that further hearings (there is a recording of the premiere) will be rewarding.

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