Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Sheila and Oreo

What makes a sound music? What makes an object a musical instrument? And can a European composer inspired by an Asian culture inspire an Asian composer to create something that marries both traditions?

These were among the many questions brought to mind by the exceptional program presented last weekend by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Jacques Lacombe.

The Mayo Center in Morristown was the site of the Sunday performance, which had been presented Friday and Saturday at two other venues.

The two pieces on the program were more than a century and several continents apart, their differences vivid and unmistakable. Yet they were intimately related. Tan Dun’s Earth Concerto, the first half of the program, is like an offspring of Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), performed after intermission.

Earth Concerto, having its US premiere in the NJSO’s three weekend performances, is the fourth work in Tan Dun’s series devoted to man and nature. The first, the Water Concerto, was presented by NJSO four years ago during its Winter Festival, and the Earth Concerto concludes the cycle.

“I have always believed that earth, like other natural elements, holds a deep spirit, speaking with a language all its own, singing and vibrating alongside all beings…,” the composer has said. This concerto is for instruments not normally thought of as musical instruments.

At the forefront, and placed where the first violins would normally be, was an array of ceramic and clay pots (purchased at the Metropolitan Plant and Flower Exchange in Bergen County—yes, they are flower pots!). Played by striking with an assortment of mallets and so forth by three master percussionists, David Cossin, James Musto and James Neglia, they redefine what a musical instrument is.

Also performing as a soloist was Zhang Meng, a virtuoso on a variety of traditional Chinese ceramic wind instruments. Meanwhile, the first violin section played standing at the back of the stage, behind the other musicians.

Were the sounds strange? Yes, at times. There were thumps and shouts, as well as exquisite bell-like melodies from the percussions. (I learned that glazed pots have a completely different sound from unglazed terra cotta.) Percussionist David Cossin said, “Tan Dun is interested in finding music in almost anything around us.”

Tan Dun, born in 1957 in Hunan Province, is perhaps China’s best-known composer in the west. Trained in both traditional Chinese music and western music, he is a prolific composer. In 2000, his score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, won an Academy Award©, a Grammy and a BAFTA award. He literally quotes from Mahler’s song cycle in the Earth Concerto, which he created to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Das Lied Von Der Erde. The pairing of the two works on one program could hardly have been more appropriate.

Though the Mahler piece is a set of six songs, performed by a large orchestra and two singers, Mahler himself subtitled it A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voices and Orchestra. Divided into six movements, each a song, it runs nearly an hour. Each song is a setting of a Chinese poem, translated into German. The Sturm und Drang of German Romanticism, the obsession with love and death, dominate, though the piece was composed in 1907-08, well past the heyday of the Romantic period.

The mood is set by the first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, or The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Misery, a melodic paean to sorrow sung by the tenor soloist Russell Thomas. The words to each song paint a picture. A little imagination may bring to mind a pavilion in a garden, rendered in blue on white porcelain. Do the lovers come together joyfully? Is death just around the corner?

Joining Thomas, a powerful and sensitive interpreter of the songs, was the exquisitely gifted mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, whose voice resonated like a bell through the auditorium, as she sang the final phrase of the sixth song, Der Abschied (The Farewell): “Ewig, ewig…” (“Forever, forever…”). Our time is short but the earth endures. Gorgeous concert!