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MSO: Buddha Passion

by Heather Leviston

Cheers, a standing ovation and a constellation of smartphone cameras greeted Tan Dun, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and a stellar array of soloists at the conclusion of the Australian premiere of his opera/oratorio Buddha Passion. This was a night to celebrate more than Tan Dun’s significant musical achievement; in addition to the many honours bestowed on him, including UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, he has now been appointed MSO Artistic Ambassador.

Tan Dun’s connection with the MSO began in 2013 and Melbourne audiences have subsequently flocked to hear the MSO’s “East Meets West” concerts. Understandably, the proportion of Chinese members of the community has been higher for these than for most MSO concerts, but Tan Dun’s colourful and accessible blending of musical idioms has found wide appeal among regular Western concertgoers.

As a prelude to the concert MSO Board member, David Li, gave a short address in both English and Mandarin followed by a few words from its Chairman, Michael Ullmer. Postlude speeches by Managing Director Sophie Galaise and the Chinese Ambassador to Australia also emphasized the importance of cultural exchange. The sentiments expressed were very much in keeping with the spirit of Buddha Passion  itself, both in Tan Dun’s musical language and the message conveyed in the text.

Buddha Passion was commissioned by the MSO in partnership with Dresdner Musikfestspiele, New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With the exception of soprano Lei Zhu and tenor Leonardo Gramegna, all of the outstanding original solo performers for the world premiere in Dresden participated in this MSO concert.

Part of the genesis of Buddha Passion can be found in Water Passion after St Matthew, which premiered in 2000 as part of the 250thanniversary of Bach’s death. The two works have much in common. Vocal styles incorporate Mongolian overtone singing, Peking Opera and, predominantly, Western operatic singing. The choruses that ends Act 3 before interval and the final Act 6 of Buddha Passion can be related to Bach’s uplifting Passion choruses. Members of the chorus also accompany themselves with percussive stones and shimmering tiny bells – a further emphasis on the natural world.

Buddha Passion evolved further during two years of research as Tan Dun explored the Mogao Caves near the Dunhuang oasis, an important stop along the Silk Road. The vast network of caves is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site housing thousands of paintings considered to be the greatest achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14thcenturies. Here, Tan Dun took inspiration from the cave paintings as well as ancient manuscripts in the national libraries of France and Great Britain. From these sources about music, musical instruments and stories, he distilled a six-part work, each of which presents a story from Buddha philosophy with an emphasis on compassion and self-sacrifice.

Although the program notes suggested that there might be some kind of representation of images, any projections were confined to surtitles given in English and Chinese translations of the Sanskrit and other texts. Opening with the story of The Bodhi Tree, the MSO Chorus began with the Ode to Compassion, an ancient chorale emerging from a beautifully blended pianissimo of warm resonance. Rising glissandi, inventive percussion and a kaleidoscopic range of other fascinating orchestral effects supported what was the beginning of a virtuosic performance on the part of the soloists and the choir, with operatic lyricism dominating the vocal expression. Singing with warm tone and animated assurance, mezzosoprano Huiling Zhu portrayed the Little Prince as he learns that all lives – his own and the bird that falls from the sky – are equal. And so an enlightened Little Prince becomes Buddha as he meditates beneath the Bodhi Tree.

In Act 2, the MSO sopranos surprised with almost child-like vocal colour as the sisters of The Deer of Nine Colours punctuating their warnings about the perils of saving the Drowning Man with spikey exclamations and clattering stones. They made a striking contrast to the chanting of the men. Their work was one of the many examples of how effectively the MSO Chorus had been trained by Chorus Master Warren Trevelyan-Jones and their language coach. Soprano Lei Xu’s sang the vocally strenuous part of the self-sacrificing deer expressively in a clear, full soprano. It was the first of her arias in the course of the opera that called upon a series of very high notes. Gramenga’s Drowning Man was similarly operatic and persuasive. Shenyang excelled in all his roles, the easy strength of his rich bass-baritone well suited to the role of the King in this Act and later as the Emperor in Act 3, A Thousand Arms and a Thousand Eyes, and the voice of Buddha in Act 6, Nirvana.

An astonishing element of Act 3 was the presence of pipa soloist and dancer Yining Chen as one of the Emperor’s three daughters. With very little room to move at the front of the stage and her exotic, elegant figure clothed in a fitted white garment with pleated frills, she performed a sinuous dance striking poses familiar in Indian dance with her instrument sometimes plucked, sometimes held aloft. As the other two daughters, Huiling Zhu’s well-projected voice was exceptionally beautiful and Lei Xu was moving as the she gave her arms and eyes to save the lives of the dying mother and her baby, thereby becoming the Bodhisattva, who caresses human wounds. Even the hardest heart could not fail to be stirred by the “Ode to Compassion: Sacrifice” that followed.

The final three Acts: Zen Garden, The Heart Sutra and Nirvana are more philosophically oriented, beginning with a debate about the essence of body and mind within a soundscape of water, wind and stone. As a minstrel monk who sacrifices his last drop of water, Mongolian vocalist Batubagen was the epitome of focused concentration in his overtone singing and Morin Khuur playing, while Tan Weiwei, a vocalist coming from a background of folk-rock, was equally compelling as she embodied the character of the gentle Nina who dies with silkworms in her hair in The Heart Sutra. Her white-sheathed body was a graceful and moving image as she raked her fingers through her long black hair.

A series of questions about the identity of Buddha before he leaves for Nirvana culminates in the final Ode to Compassion: “Heaven Earth Mankind”. Soloists join with the chorus as drums offer a steady heartbeat and quietly tolling bells before a climax of affirmation and hope in The Great Compassion Mantra “Namo Amitabha” (Homage to the Amitabha Buddha).

Tan Dun has been quoted as saying “My religion is music”. Many of us would agree. Both the quality of the performance and the devout artistic commitment that have been invested in the creation of Buddha Passion   have resulted in a spiritual experience to remember, making it an ideal centre-piece of any Arts Festival.

Classic Melbourne reviewer Heather Leviston saw the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of BUDDHA PASSION at Hamer Hall on October 6, 2018. It was part of the Melbourne Festival.

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