The drive to Richardson’s stunning Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 27 turned out to be a pilgrimage to hear a rare performance of Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, presented by Chamber Music International. The return trip felt almost surreal after transitioning from Tan Dun’s mystic world back to the reality of Dallas traffic, noise and billboards.
The program featured violinists Michael Shih, concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; guest artist Cho-Liang Lin; violist Atar Arad, who is the Professor of Viola at the University of Indiana, Bloomington; and cellist Sophie Shao, a top prizewinner of both the Rostropovich and Tchaikovsky competitions.
The star of the evening was pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen. She is renowned for bringing the instrument that dates back 2,000 years into the present time by playing much more than traditional Chinese music. She has expanded the horizons of the instrument into the worlds of jazz, free improvisation and classical music with her involvements in traditional classical music performances as well as experimental projects such as this.
The evening opened with excellent performances of more traditional concert music. We heard the Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 15, by the unfairly branded film composer Miklós Rózsa. Then came Dvořák’s Terzetto in C, Op. 74, for Two Violins and Viola.
The pipa was added for selections listed as "Ask Me Now" and "For Our Children" by the jazz legend Thelonious Monk, as arranged and transmuted by Min Xiao-Fen, who also sang in the traditional Chinese style. The program was hazy about what was being performed, probably because Min Xiao-Fen’s take on Monk’s music was so original.
Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera work requires musicians that are not only masters of their instruments but are also adept at movement while playing. They are also asked to play water, stone, metal and paper effects. Artistic Director Phillip Lewis managed to collect just such a multi-competent cadre.
The musicianship and flexibility were amazing in this work, which is as much pageant as concert. Their movements are choreographed as they merge with each other and disperse only to merge differently again and again. Technically, all are obviously masters of their instruments, but they made all of the required movements and vocalizations, even primal screams, seem to naturally grow out of the milieu Dun created, rather than as planned effects.
We expected a revolutionary composition. After all, what kind of composer wakes one morning and decides to write a concerto for a paper virtuoso? Where do you even begin to hunt for a “paperist” to perform the solo part? What transpired at this concert left “revolutionary” way behind.
The Ghost Opera has to be experienced to even begin to understand it and thus this attempt to describe the work is destined to failure, but here goes.
Like the Big Bang itself, it is a work of expansion. It starts humbly from a single string instrument. As the elements of a string quartet begin to form out of the ether, one at a time, they move randomly until they finally settle, surprisingly, in what is the standard setup for a string quartet. The effect was to watch disparate elements float around randomly until they merged, as if by some kind of string gravity.
Dun expands the instrumentation above human-imposed borders of East and West by adding a pipa, a plucked string instrument with a neck — the Chinese cousin of the lute, sitar and guitar. From there, the scoring pushes the instruments above the boundaries of playability and on top of that adds vocalizations and singing in both English and Chinese to push them out of their usual musical reality. But Dun doesn’t stop there. He expands even more in an attempt to touch infinity, by incorporating the elements of the physical world: water, paper, stone and metal.
Dun’s final expansion is to break the barriers of time. Ancient Chinese death rituals as well as folk music combines with bits of Bach, jazz and even the words of Shakespeare.
Musically, Dun’s score is a kaleidoscope of disparate elements, most of which are recognizable as they reoccur. With a musical turn, these elements click into place to create a pattern, which insistently rejumbles, with the next turn of Dun’s musical kaleidoscope. Thus, he creates a series of patterns that are always completely different yet made out of exactly the same shattered elements.
The opening string quartet music is made to sound otherworldly when seasoned by the bizarre sound of a small gong, struck and then dunked in and out of a water basin. Vocalizations continued to make the term “opera” applicable. The amplified use of the elements, such as a crumple of paper, added percussion as effective as a snare drum’s roll.
In fact, paper gets the most dramatic effect. An unrolled scroll of blank white paper that was suspended from the ceiling and dominated the otherwise nearly empty stage, looked like a ghostly pathway to the heavens. Near the end of the piece, the players shake it, perhaps to dislodge any remaining ghosts using this interdimensional pathway, to join with or escape from, Dun’s ephemeral and constantly changing reality. It’s a reality that can only be inhabited in the infinity that occurs during the performance of the Ghost Opera.