Festival Music

The Opening Concert: Buddha Passion Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

AS an opening gambit for new artistic director Nicola Benedetti’s first Edinburgh International Festival, which is posing the question Where Do We Go From Here? in publicity across the capital, the Scottish premiere of Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion could hardly have been bettered.

Conducted by the Chinese composer himself, the mighty two-hour work employed the RSNO, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO Youth Chorus, six vocal soloists with specific skills and a dancer in a work that combined moments of pastoral delicacy with some full-throated climaxes that only a vast body of singers can provide.

The obvious intention was to allude to the great Christian Passions of J S Bach in a work that employed the stories and philosophy of Buddhism, and in that it was completely successful.

Regardless of a minor hitch with the surtitles after the interval, the parables and imagery Tan Dun uses, in the six “Acts” of the work, were always lucidly expressed, although sung in a challenging mix of Sanskrit, Chinese, and English.

The specific talents of indigenous singers Tan Weiwei and sonorous bass Batubagen, as well as Chen Yining’s combination of choreography and playing on the Chinese pipa were the more exotic ingredients, but the four other soloists – mezzo Samantha Chong, baritone Elliot Madore, tenor Chen Chen and perhaps especially soprano Louise Kwong – dealt with the complexities of their parts superbly.

The Scottish voices on stage were arguably even more impressive. This was the Festival Chorus at the top of its game, the men suppling carefully-calibrated glissando (in Sanskrit) in their opening utterance, and the women’s voices adding ethereal washes of sound as well as beautiful diction later.

Twenty or so young people of the RSNO Youth Chorus – one lone boy treble alongside the girls – were equally impressive, singing both from memory and alongside the adults from the score when required.

There were some fine solo contributions from the orchestra – notably from the percussion principal Simon Lowden and his colleagues, playing singing bowls, bowls of water, and Eastern drums, as well as flautist Helen Brew and Henry Clay on cor anglais – but on the whole the scoring for the instrumentalists as a ensemble seemed less challenging than the task given to the vocalists.

What everyone on the platform shared was Tan Dun’s wide-ranging sonic palette. Especially when the indigenous singers appeared, we were often in the world of Peking Opera where the composer’s career began, but there were flashes of music that seemed to be sourced from very many other places as well.

If the inspiration of Bach was not especially audible, there were certainly bars of music that resembled popular contemporary composers including Karl Jenkins and even Andrew Lloyd Webber, while the brass section sometimes recalled the Stan Kenton Orchestra. And in the cinematic sweep of many moments of Buddha Passion, the fact that Tan Dun is still best known for his Oscar-winning soundtrack to Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was there for all to hear.

The debut recording of Buddha Passion, recorded in Shanghai by the Orchestre Nacional de Lyon conducted by Tan Dun, was released by Decca to coincide with the Edinburgh Festival concert.