This concert offered music by the leading Chinese composer Tan Dun, integrated into a main evening concert that laudably consisted entirely of works new to the Proms.
This concert offered music by the leading Chinese composer Tan Dun, integrated into a main evening concert that laudably consisted entirely of works new to the Proms. But even given Tan's acknowledged debts to Shostakovich and Cage, the inclusion of both composers at the start was a mistake.
Shostakovich's Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes (from 1963) incorporates tunes from a region bordering China, but the piece finds its composer functioning purely on autopilot. Cage's 1947 ballet score, The Seasons, has too much rather static music in it to succeed so early in such a programme. Tan, though, being an excellent conductor, shaped the work carefully.
So it was only when we reached the first of his own two works, a violin concerto from 1987 entitled Out of Peking Opera, that things really started to sizzle. You could feel the audience focus intently on the proceedings right from the beginning, when that Peking-Opera gong kicked in, with its characteristic pitch-bending. And while this might have been due purely to the exotic factor, in this work the Peking-Opera antics are just the beginning of a journey which proves compelling not only from moment to moment, but also cumulatively.
For Tan is a master of timing and drama as well as conjuring novel sound worlds. And of pungent lyrical utterance too; here you could occasionally smell the whiff of the schmaltziness into which he has elsewhere strayed (for instance, in a delightfully louche trumpet solo at the end of the violinist's cadenza).
Cho-Liang Lin was the characterful soloist here and also played a built-in encore for solo fiddle, Esa-Pekka Salonen's cliché-ridden Laughing Unlearnt, which came immediately after the interval. And then Evelyn Glennie was an equally adept soloist in the work that concluded this concert, Tan's concerto for water percussion and orchestra.
This ought to have been the concert's high point: it's a later work (from 1999) and more ambitious than the violin concerto, for a start. On the level of sheer spectacle, it might be thought hard to beat Glennie doing her thing with Chinese instruments, such as the bowed waterphone with which she initially advanced to the stage right through the prommers in the arena. Especially when water is extensively, and sometimes magically, deployed as a percussion instrument itself or for the immersion of a van-load of exotic instruments.
And all with a whole orchestra and a couple of accomplice percussionists too, who got themselves and the front row of prommers even wetter than she did. Yet this concerto's lack of really distinctive musical material besides the sounds of water itself, and its sprawling structure, ultimately made it a less compelling experience.
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