Tan Dun’s ‘Water Passion’ wows SummerFest audience

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

On Saturday night, Aug. 4, a crowd of SummerFest music-lovers gathered at the La Jolla Playhouse to experience a multimedia oratorio written by Chinese composer Tan Dun to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death.

Both aurally and visually stunning, “Water Passion After St. Matthew” began with soft, otherworldly sounds and lighting, and ended with the whispered word “silence,” a slow parade of performers dipping into a cascade of gold-lit, amplified water bowls, and then — silence, a rare minute of total silence in the theater before the roar of applause.

Tan Dun, based in New York, was raised in a village in Hunan, trained in the theatrical traditions of Chinese opera, and is best-known for his Oscar-winning score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Since childhood, he has been fascinated by water and the natural music it makes.

In his pre-concert talk with SummerFest music director Cho-Liang Lin, a longtime friend who performed in the 2000 Stuttgart premiere of “Water Passion,” he quoted classical poet Li Po (“the Chinese Shakespeare”): “If the sounds of water are so beautiful, why do you need instruments?”

Besides the amazing variety of sounds that emerged from the water bowls as they were stirred, splashed and pounded — “I can’t wait to go home and fill a bowl with water and see what I can do!” murmured an audience member — there was a mix of drums, strings, and Tibetan bells, monkish chants, Chinese opera, and Tuvan throat singing, along with a little jazz and John Cage.

Though the piece is a homage to Bach, whose music felt like “spiritual medicine” to Dun after the bad old days of China’s Cultural Revolution, “Water Passion” is more Buddhist than Bach-ish, reflective of Dun’s own experience of suffering and resurrection.

This was the stage picture: 17 large, amplified, blue-lit, water-filled bowls, arranged in the shape of a cross. At the top, sparkling in reflected golden light, was percussionist Bonnie Whiting Smith, who moved like a dancer. (She just received her Ph.D. in music performance from UCSD.) Thirty-six members of the San Diego Master Chorale filled seats in the risers below her, with two more percussionists —UCSD Ph.D candidate Dustin Donahue and David Cossin, featured in the score of “Crouching Tiger” — at the edges of the cross’s horizontal, and conductor/composer Tan Dun at the base.

Flanking Dun were the soloists: violinist Cho-Liang Lin and cellist Felix Fan, and two singers, bass-baritone Stephen Bryant and coloratura soprano Ying Huang. The lighting was blue and gold, except at the moment of crucifixion, when the bowls turned bloodred.

At the end, back to gold light, and the sounds of water.

“Water ... is the beginning, and the beginning is the ending, and the end is the beginning. That’s the meaning of resurrection,” Tan Dun said.

Water, a metaphor for the unity of the eternal and the external, as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection, played a key role in the conception of my Water Passion after St. Matthew. Using a “Water-Instruments-Orchestra,” the Xun, an ancient ceramic instrument, the fiddling of the silk road cultures and solo and choral vocalizations from my “Sound Map of One World Tradition” — which itself features monk chanting, Tuvan overtone singing, and the high-pitched “calligraphy” of Eastern Opera traditions – Water Passion after St. Matthew is musical metaphysics and drama on the story of Jesus according to St. Matthew’s Passion.