To honor the 250th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach in 2000, the Stuttgart-based International Bach-Akademie commissioned four composers to create modern-day settings of the Biblical depiction of the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus that Bach had eloquently honored in his day. Three of the settings, each in a distinctive contemporary style, still remained within the traditional frame of large chorus-plus-orchestra.
One, decidedly, did not: the “orchestra” in Chinese composer Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew” consists of a scattering of normal instruments — a single violin and cello plus kettledrums — plus a fascinating, anything but traditional gathering of sticks, stones, metal plates and, above all, bowls of water. This is the work that received its first Los Angeles hearing on Sunday night in the capable hands of Grant Gershon and his splendid and adventurous Master Chorale. The crowd was capacity at the start; some left at midpoint, one or two remained to boo; the majority rose to cheer.
Master of virtually every nameable current musical form — plus a few still awaiting classification — the 49-year-old Tan reverts in this vast (90-minute) choral work to his early musical experiments, when, as a child in a Chinese village with no formal access to music, he worked to draw sounds from any available substance — banging stones together, slapping on a watery surface, ringing primitive bells.
His “Passion,” told in short, disconnected phrases by the chorus and two vocal soloists downstage, subjects the Biblical tragedy to the raw power of these sounds. At one memorable moment describing the crowd’s taunting of the captured Jesus, the entire chorus sets to rubbing stones together; the result is astounding. No aggregation of “normal” instruments could match the chill of that sound.
Moments like this, or the sublime ending when a dozen-or-so choristers come forward to swirl the water in a lineup of glass bowls, and the soft trickling dies into darkness, point up the unique dramatic power of the best of Tan’s music — not the least of which is his Oscar-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The weak moments come when the fabulous percussion effects subside, and the chorus starts to sing the kind of standard-issue, pseudo-modern music that anyone else can write these days. Almost anyone else can do it better.