Liquid music: LA Master Chorale and Tan Dun’s ‘Water Passion’

A very excited crowd gathered on April 11, for the first of two return performances of Tan Dun‘s Water Passion After St. Matthew at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  This work first came to L.A. in 2005, part of Los Angeles Master Chorale‘s second season in the new performance space and a harbinger of the many innovative repertoire choices to come. In the ten years since, that performance has remained one of the most talked-about concerts in LAMC’s history, and the rest of us couldn’t wait to find out why.

The concert started in darkness, our attention grabbed immediately by two percussionists (David Cossin and John Wakefield) coming down the side aisles while playing a sort of conical water drum, strung around the sides — an instrument that can be tapped, drummed, raked with the fingers, shaken, twirled, bowed and more.  They slowly made their way to their stage positions, where seventeen large, transparent basins were placed in a sort of upside-down cross arrangement  and lit from beneath, some mic’d to pick up the sounds created by slapping, swishing, dribbling, and otherwise using and manipulating the water in the main two basins up front.  A third percussionist (Theresa Dimond) was stationed at the back, surrounded by a large gong and a collection of percussive miscellany.   All of the percussionists were precise and improvisatory as called for, juggled an impressive number of instruments and objects, and were great fun to watch.  And of course, Cossin’s ‘water cadenza’ was truly unforgettable and a highlight of the event.

It is these water features and the manipulation and play with one of the earth’s most common compounds that drew most of the attention throughout the concert: with so much to watch and listen to, there was always the sense that we were missing something, but not a boring moment throughout.  Cossin and Wakefield, in particular, did much of the water percussion, whether manipulating the wet stuff with bare hands or treating the water itself as an organic drum by inverting two cups and slapping them against the surface.  There were many techniques used to create different sounds and images:  wooden bowls floated on the water’s surface were hit with mallets to offer the sound of tribal drums, but with a uniquely twisted timbre; tapping on bowl, even from below surface; or bowing water gongs, which whine and change pitch as they’re raised and lowered into liquid.  Even more traditional instruments like the timpani found expanded functionality, as beating close to the rim with bare hands, treating it like a giant bongo, Cossin pulled a similar range of color and “voice” from the kettle drum as from the water bowls, expanding the dramatic range of each relatively simple object exponentially. In the section marked “Death and Earthquake”, the death rattle was rendered from  the timpani by both percussionists, growing into seismic upheaval with choral screams, storm sheets played by the chorus and lighting that shifted chaotically and then went to black.  The level of theatricality in the score and in this presentation was astounding, yet did not seem overdone.  This is a great show on many levels.

kamareh_delaramIranian soprano Delaram Kamareh‘s extravagantly flexible voice is vibrant, alive with color, and packaged in a 25-year-old singer with a Fraggle-worthy shock of raven hair,  studded jacket, skinny leggings and stiletto heels that leave no mistake: this is no ordinary diva.  She flings notes about with spectacular abandon, but is always on-point. Her voice rode sliding high notes through the stratosphere, with shimmer all the way to the top, yet delivered lower passages rich with a warm, almost mezzo-like strength that showed versatility and range.  Kamareh has the magnetism of a rock star, but the pipes of the finest operatic coloratura, a colorful artist who portrays more ferocity than flash, and is absolutely electrifying,  (Read more about Ms. Kamareh in her interview at All is Yar.)

bryant_stephenStephen Bryant has soloed on this work before, and was, of course, in full command of every note.  His refined, velvety baritone is perfect for lyrical melodic lines as well as his multiple characters, all punctuated with extended vocal techniques.  Yet he makes it all look easy, growling at the bottom of his full voice and lyrical through throat-singing techniques that elongate consonants and vowels and briefly transform his rich instrument into something reminiscent of an Aboriginal didgeridoo. This role, with alternations of lyrical melodies and forays into the lowest range, would wear out most voices.  But we gasped as he immediately switched back into a lyrical head voice, as if nothing had happened.  The man apparently has cords of pliable steel.

The two parts for strings are raw, emotive and earthy. Using microtones and bent pitches to expand the instruments’ emotive vocabulary, the resulting sound shows clear influences from Asian traditional instruments, and perhaps even the fiddlers from our own Country traditions, occasionally evoking images of Southern honky-tonks.  This breadth of color and vivacity is mind-blowing, a sonic kaleidoscope that heightens suspense and is utterly engaging.  A violin solo was rocked so hard by the Lyris Quartet’s  Shalini Vijayan, with bluesy tones and lightning-fast virtuosity, even Charlie Daniels would approve, as would the gypsy masters.  Though cellist Cecilia Tsan was not as visually present from her seated position, her performance was no less compelling, mastering the bent pitches and Asian string techniques that provide so much flavor and yet ground the work with extraordinary familiar sound. Tsan’s playing tended to dwell more in the background in this work, but was exquisite and masterful when it came to the fore.

Also less prominent, but equally important to the process, digital sampler Yuanlin Chen, provided “found sounds” and digital processing to beautifully enhance the elements of live performance. Chen, who has worked with Tan Dun extensively, is the only musician involved who has been part of every performance of this work worldwide. The digital improvisation’s additional element of indeterminacy seemed to  contribute to the feeling that the work is alive, being coaxed into being in the moment, rather than simply realized from the page.  Pulling it all together, Grant Gershon‘s conducting was more dance than metronome, keeping time fluidly and with strong connection to the content and the performers.

Always exceptional, the choir filled multiple functions and brought their typically strong and cohesive sound to this texturally diverse musical event.  In addition to the traditionally-inclined choruses one would expect in an oratorio, the work is peppered throughout with screams, sighs, mutterings, hand-held temple bells, stone percussion and scenes of the grand mob.  This chorus does not sit quietly while soloists do their thing, and even with stellar soloists and players, few choruses could carry this piece off — precision is too essential, as is musicality in moments of stark texture and driving shouts of mob madness.  Further, the work’s harmonies are often layered rather than stacked, and it’s not always clear where starting pitches are coming from. With just five rehearsals, LAMC executed a difficult work with commitment and clear understanding of the profound emotional content.  Bravos all around.

2015-04-11_LAMC_Water1As the final movements wind down, several water “soloists” from within the chorus moved into place near previously untouched vessels along the center of the cross formation, interacting with the liquid with their hands, faces, even one soprano’s extremely long blond hair, which swished as if alive in the lit bowl.  For a moment at least, the world was baptized anew, and found peace.

Stunned, the audience sat for several moments in silent darkness before the lights come up and much of the crowd leaped enthusiastically to their feet. Quite uncharacteristically, I was up as well, for the well-deserved standing ovation and the hope that this work will come back to Los Angeles again, as soon as possible.

Special note:  Rather than attempt to recreate the detailed description of this unusual work provided in Thomas May’s program notes, I strongly recommend that you read them online.  Click here for notes, or read details about the concert and performers.

Coming up next for LAMC:

May 1 –– 26th Annual High School Choral Festival (with a choir of 1000 students!)


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