Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Map

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Tan Dun
October 11, 2007 @ The Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda, MD

Dmitri Shostakovich: Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes, op. 115
Alexander Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
The Map, Concerto for Violoncello, Video and Orchestra
Ilya Finkelshteyn: cello

Some believe that the classical music tradition is somehow in its last throes. Orchestras and orchestral music are frequently declared to be in various stages of decay in the press (and in music blogs) and discussions often circle a tight orbit with a pessimistic view toward change. Encountering The Map, particularly as conducted by its composer Tan Dun, sheds much needed perspective upon the fragility of all traditions from one who has weathered many changes.

The Map is an intensely personal work. It is motivated by a passionate journey to recover and preserve the aboriginal dance and music traditions of China. Traditions that are astonishingly vivid, beautiful and frail. The juxtaposition and incorporation of the sounds, movement and people of China via pre-recorded video into the pan-cultural context of an orchestra within a formal concert hall draws striking parallels to the mortality and enduring humanity inherit in all traditions. The video, cello and orchestra work as equal parts in The Map. There is no sense of one accompanying the other. The performance unfolds as a dialogue between these three parts that periodically overlaps at times. Tan Dun skillfully mixes and balances this piece by allowing the video screen to go blank or the orchestra to go silent at different times as the focal point shifts fluidly in accordance to the materials being presented. The incorporation of the orchestral percussion with the dancers and stone drummers on screen was particularly exhilarating. And the call and response between the singer on screen with the cellist on stage was brilliant - in part because of the vocal-like inflections of the cello part. Extended techniques for the orchestral players were clearly focused on complimenting and adding to the overall sonic image and the orchestration was extraordinarily economical with sparse - but never thin - textures.

The common thread of works that make use of folk materials native to their respective composers was also evident in the Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander Borodin pieces in the first half of this program. Shostakovich's Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes is a well-orchestrated piece that lives up to its "overture" status as unusually light fare for its composer. The Polovtsian Dances of Alexander Borodin had a sticky, overly sweet quality that seemed to clean all the earthiness off of its folk materials.

As a conductor, Tan Dun made precise, deliberate motions toward a responsive Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that seemed to draw a world of sound with a minimum of extraneous gestures. One could sense the connection Tan Dun felt with each of the pieces on this program. And one could sense the melancholy of the fading traditions so lovingly presented in The Map along side the optimism that this one creative expression might help preserve the awe and human warmth found within Tan Dun's personal and cultural geography.

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