La Scena Musicale

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Music Across Cultures: Composer/Conductor Tan Dun Creates Map!

by Paul E. Robinson

The First Emperor
Placido Domingo/Elizabeth Futral/Paul Groves/Michelle DeYoung/Wu Hsing Kuo/Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet
Composer/Conductor: Tan Dun
Director: Zhang Yimou
EMI DVD 215129-9

After spending several weeks in China earlier this year, it took me some time to absorb what I had seen and heard and to properly evaluate the enormity of the changes taking place in that vast and multi-faceted country.

I can’t presume to analyse China’s current role in world affairs, let alone predict what it will be in years to come. Even the various strands in China’s musical life are too complex and growing too fast to warrant easy characterizations. Music critic Anne Midgette recently visited China with the National Symphony Orchestra and made some interesting observations about Chinese audiences and the role of Western music in Chinese society.

From my own perspective, the recent works of composer Tan Dun would be a useful starting point for anyone trying to understand where China and its music are today.

For the past decade, China has been quite welcoming of Western music and performers. A corollary to this tolerance and appreciation is the influx of Chinese - students and performers at all levels - to the United States and to other Western countries. Some of these musicians – Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and Yuja Wang – have been internationally acclaimed as major artists. The musical interaction between China and the West has become enormously rich in recent years and appears to be increasing exponentially.

With respect to composers, this exchange has been very real too, although the results thus far have been uneven.

One hundred years ago, Ravel and Debussy became fascinated with Chinese music and incorporated elements of it in their own compositions. In our own time, however, though China is so open and receptive to foreigners, Western composers, for the most part, appear to be apathetic; the creative cross-fertilization seems to be coming almost entirely from Chinese musicians - composer/conductor Tan Dun, for example.

Tan Dun, born in Hunan province in 1957, studied at the Central Conservatory in Beijing. From there he went to New York. He now straddles two worlds and reflects that cross-culturalism in many of his works. He is - without a doubt - China’s most successful composer of Western classical music, but more than that – his success is international. Few composers, whatever their national origin, are commissioned to write an opera for the Met.

Tan Dun is best-known for a film score - the music he wrote for Zhang Yimou’s Crouching Tiger, Sleeping Dragon. In that score, he demonstrated a gift for theatricality and for creating sound effects in a Chinese idiom. These are qualities evident in his operas too, not least of all in The First Emperor, which Tan Dun was commissioned to write for New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company.

The Met production of this opera got very mixed reviews. Some critics suggested that Tan Dun’s music was no more than sound effects coupled with a musical style borrowed from Puccini and Peking Opera, and that the mixture was unconvincing.

There is some truth in these harsh observations, but they fail to account for the beauty and originality of both the opera and the production. Though Tan Dun may have failed to write a great opera, he nonetheless created a highly stimulating encounter between East and West.

In his orchestration of the story of The First Emperor, Tan Dun uses the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra ensemble pretty much ‘as is’, adding Chinese instruments to the percussion section as well as a giant bell and an amplified zheng – a sort of Chinese zither – on stage. This instrument is used with great imagination, in combination with the two harps in the pit at the beginning of Act Two. On the whole, the instrumental sounds are fresh, exciting and beautiful throughout the opera.

Tan Dun is on more uncertain ground in his vocal writing.

The First Emperor opens with a long scene featuring Wu Hsing-Kuo, a brilliant singer from the Peking Opera. This man plays the role of the Yin-Yang Master. He is superb in his scene in front of the curtain. His range of gestures from the most subtle to the overtly acrobatic was amazing and evidence of a tradition that does not exist in the West outside, perhaps, the Cirque du Soleil.

When we get into the story of the opera and the big stars appear – Placido Domingo as the Emperor and Elizabeth Futral as his daughter – the musical style changes. The Chinese musical character seems to become peripheral and a more or less (some might call it “tortured”) traditional Western operatic idiom is more prominent - perhaps a concession to the Western performers . Whatever its inspiration, this uneasy mixture of exotic and traditional elements continues through to the end of the opera, and is ultimately unconvincing.

So be it. It is an enormous challenge to blend East and West and Tan Dun needs time and experience to show what he can do.

There are other problems with The First Emperor. The story of the opera is based on fact, but as scripted on stage at the Met, it came across as exceedingly silly. Admittedly, silliness is not uncommon in opera librettos, but in operas that hold their place in the repertoire, the silliness is greatly outweighed by the quality of the music.

That is not the case with The First Emperor. There are no show-stopping arias or ensembles. What the opera does have going for it is music that is often fresh and imaginative, and sets and costumes that are lavish and colorful and undoubtedly very expensive. Unfortunately, these assets may also work against the inclusion of this opera in popular repertoire. To be successful, The First Emperor needs a lavish production and few companies will be able to afford it.

Some revisions may or may not make this a better opera. It is certainly far too static. Many of the scenes go on too long, the chorus sits more than it participates, and apart from the gyrations of the Yin-Yang Master, there is not nearly enough movement.

On balance, I would applaud the Met for commissioning Tan Dun to write this opera and for making such a major financial commitment to trying to bridge the gap between East and West. The First Emperor may not be a great opera, but it was – and is - a noble effort.

The Map: A Multimedia Event in Rural China
Anssi Karttunen/Shanghai Philharmonic
Composer/Conductor: Tan Dun
DG DVD 00440 073 4013

While in China I bought the DVD of another major Tan Dun work, The Map: A Multimedia Event in Rural China. The work was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony in 2002 and it is to my mind a remarkable piece of artistic invention, and can be considered another attempt to bridge East and West.

The DVD documents a performance of The Map given outdoors in 2003 in the ancient city of Fenghuang in Hunan province. The concept of the piece is to blend film of various types of traditional Chinese music from the region, with music newly composed by Tan Dun. The use of giant screens behind the orchestra adds immensely to the theatricality of the experience.

In The Map, Tan Dun’s composition often begins where the traditional music leaves off and becomes a kind of riff or improvisation on the older material. In this terrific performance, the transitions are almost seamless, and the effect is extremely engrossing and powerful. Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen plays like a man possessed and Tan Dun conducts the Shanghai Symphony with intensity and precision.

One of the most compelling aspects of the work is to see vivid examples of the wide variety of strange and beautiful music in Chinese folk culture. There is “cry-singing”, a stylized form of choral singing by old women, and amazing music created by banging stones together – “stone music” which also appears in Tan Dun’s opera, The First Emperor.

Altogether there are eight different kinds of traditional music used in The Map and they are put together in such a way that their strangeness is transformed into a kind of universal music. This is Tan Dun’s achievement and it is amazing. Some might say that the piece is merely another sound effects opus by Tan Dun, and in its way, simply another film score. I don’t agree. I think The Map is a highly original blending of Eastern and Western musical idioms. If you have a chance to see it performed, don’t miss the opportunity.

As it happens, there is a performance scheduled at the Festival International de Lanaudière (Quebec, Canada) on July 11. The cello soloist is Matthew Barley and Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts the Festival Orchestra.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The Badaling portion of the Great Wall of China - completely restored - is the section most frequently visited by tourists. In other areas, parts of the wall have crumbled and all but disappeared. To restore the entire length of the wall to its former condition would be a monumental task - and to what end? Even when it was built, apparently, it did not serve its purpose as a defense against invaders – and it certainly does not today, in this age of airplanes.

Our tour guide Mike told us that the entrance facilities had been recently upgraded and the hordes of hawkers and beggars who formerly frequented the place have been kept away. The general impression is of a very clean and modern site.

As was the case at the Forbidden City, there were thousands of Chinese visitors at the Great Wall, often in groups. Mike explained that at the height of the season, traffic is very congested. It was busy today, he thought, but not unpleasantly so. We walked for about a mile along the top of the wall, most of it uphill - stopping far short of the highest point - then back down the same way. There are very few ‘steps’ on top of the wall so on the way down it is not easy to keep one’s balance or control one’s forward motion. Not a place for visitors unable to cope with a challenging walk.

On to the Silk Market for Some Extra Luggage
In the afternoon we went to the famous – some might call it ‘infamous’ - Silk Market. We had been travelling with two large suitcases and two small carry-ons. With acquisitions along the way, the suitcases had become far too heavy to be acceptable by the airlines. No problem if the weight is divided into two checked bags. We got some cheap ($10 each) duffel bags on wheels and divided the stuff accordingly.

The Silk Market is very popular with western tourists, but it is a pretty odious place. Each stall is tended by one or two young girls (usually) who solicit the approaching customers like prostitutes. Some even grab the customers by the arm and refuse to release them until they buy. Bargaining is part of the process. Marked prices mean nothing and the haggling is endless. Rumor has it that this place is run by a criminal organization and that the girls are under tremendous pressure to meet quotas.

This market is not, in fact, a ‘silk’ market at all; nearly everything in the hundreds of stalls of this claustrophobic building are knockoffs of famous brand name manufacturers of shirts, clothes and bags of all kinds. The government raids this market from time to time to try to keep the phony stuff from being sold. One possible solution under discussion is to have these vendors clearly label the knock-offs as imitations and pay licensing fees to the brand name manufacturers whose products are being copied.

Although we found ourselves caught up in the bargain-hunting, it is probably unworthy of foreign tourists to be doing business in such places just to buy cheap stuff that has nothing whatever to do with China’s own traditions. At other locations in shops run by the government one can find excellent products such as silk rugs, shirts and bedding. The products are guaranteed and the prices are very reasonable and fair. In fact, we did purchase a beautiful Han Dynasty design silk carpet at one of these stores.

If You Haven't Been Already - You Must Go Soon!
Planning a visit to China? Don't hesitate! You will step into a modern and largely tourist-friendly "new" Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom). Based on our experiences in Beijing several of the publications we had consulted before travelling were very useful. The Eyewitness Travel books published by Dorling Kindersley Publishing are superb, not only for Beijing but for many other destinations as well. For current information about Beijing and what is happening there from an expat point of view seek out the English-language magazine City Weekend. It is full of useful and detailed information about restaurants, clubs, concerts and exhibitions.

Next in China Diary: Talking about Stokowski at two of Beijing's leading music schools.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , , , , ,

Chinese Flock to Beijing's Once Forbidden City!

by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

At 9 am on our third day in Beijing, we set out on a private tour (photo above: Paul with our guide Mike) of the Forbidden City, a vast complex of buildings, completed in 1420, as the home of the Chinese Emperors and their court.

Even in early spring and cool temperatures, there were thousands of visitors at this famous tourist destination - most of them Chinese from rural areas, travelling in groups. Foreign tourists were conspicuous by their absence in the face of the global recession.

Our guide told us that one of biggest problems for tour guides is the fact that Chinese tourists wander away from their group and get lost in the labyrinthine complexity of the Forbidden City. At the height of the season, he claimed, there can be as many as 15,000 lost persons ‘turned in’ at the ‘Lost Persons’ office.

One may wonder why a Chinese communist government would glorify this gigantic symbol of arbitrary rule by all-powerful Emperors in thousands of years of dynastic history, and encourage its citizens to make a pilgrimage to see it. This is a good question with no simple answer. But if the Forbidden City represents some of the worst elements in Chinese history, it also stands as proof that China is a powerful and distinctive culture and has been for a very long time.

We duly tramped through the Forbidden City marveling at the scale of it all, but amazed that almost none of the buildings were open for viewing. Tourists come great distances to see one of the wonders of the world, but are exposed to very little that resembles life as it was lived here.

There are some changes in the works, however; later this year, the government will open Juanqinzhai (Lodge of Retirement) in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. This is a theater room built by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century, which was recently restored with painstaking care by Chinese artisans. Among the outstanding features of this room are the silk murals done by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary credited with introducing Western perspective painting techniques to China.

Mao’s Mausoleum and Tian’an Men Square
Finally, after trekking through miles of the Forbidden City we come to the gate where Chairman Mao Zedong famously addressed the adoring crowds in Tian’an Men Square on October 1, 1949 to proclaim the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao stood on a balcony of the gate facing away from the Forbidden City. He never entered the Forbidden City. He didn’t destroy it, but he saw it as a symbol of the worst of Chinese history.

Outside the gates of the Forbidden City, we crossed the street through a pedestrian tunnel with a security checkpoint to be admitted to Tian’an Men Guangchang (the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace). The security is to prevent people from holding up banners for some protest or other.

Nothing much to see here except the vastness of it all, and to be reminded of all the wonderful and ugly things that have taken place here. The twentieth anniversary of the 1989 protests was upon us and authorities were making sure there would be no opportunity for a reprise.

The main building in the square is Mao’s Mausoleum, where the Chairman’s embalmed body is raised daily from its refrigerated chamber for morning and afternoon viewing. On either side of the square are two other massive buildings: the China National Museum and the Great Hall of the People where the National People’s Congress meets. It’s an impressive array of buildings and history and for the most part it is without any ideological oppressiveness. The heavy-handed propaganda and leader-worship of the past is pretty much gone.

Lunch at the Marvellous Maison Boulud

It was now lunch time and Marita had scouted out a new French restaurant much-praised in the expat press and located just off Tian’an Men Square. Standing there, in that square, one could not help but remember the images flashed across news screens around the world in '89. Lunch at the grand Maison Boulud seemed somehow disrespectful of all the history that had been lived just blocks away. But we had come a long way and were determined to experience all of Beijing - the old and the new!

Maison Boulud, located in an upscale enclave of restaurants and stores in what used to be the U.S. consular compound and now known as Legation Quarter, is owned by master chef Daniel Boulud, a restauranteur in New York. The setting is elegantly traditional, and the menu imaginative.

Our waiter urged us to try the DB (Daniel Boulud) Burger, which we found to be excellent – a sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs and foie gras. Dessert - the Tropical Fruit Coupe de Glace - was beautifully presented and delicately flavored. We were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Chinese wine served at Maison Boulud. It was a cabernet franc 2004Tasyas’ Reserve from Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , , ,

The Very Modern Face of Beijing

Classical Travels

After our all too brief encounter (12 hours!) with the fascinating city of Shanghai, we again boarded the Diamond Princess and settled in for several relaxing days at sea.

On the morning of the third day, our ship docked at Xingang, the closest port to Beijing. This was the final stop on our cruise, which had begun 16 days earlier in Bangkok. All 2,600 passengers disembarked here and headed for buses to travel the 100 km or so into Beijing.

The buses themselves were Chinese-made and looked like modern tour buses, but they were laid out for little people; there was barely enough room for me to sit with my legs sideways. After a 20 minute wait in the bus, off we went – about two blocks. We sat and sat in traffic, just inching along. At one point, our bus stalled. The driver had to get out and start it again with a crank. Then he got lost and had to turn the bus around. Next, much to our horror, when he missed an exit ramp on an expressway, he nonchalantly backed up in heavy traffic.

After about an hour of this unwelcome entertainment, we stopped at a restaurant for a toilet break. Three other buses had the same idea at the same time, making the line-ups for the toilets – two! – very long. These were traditional Chinese facilities; that is - holes in the floor! Duly relieved, off we went again, past endless rows of high-rise housing estates, and hundreds more under construction.

Three hours later, we arrived somewhere in Beijing. After a half hour of waiting and negotiation, we managed to arrange for local transportation and were on our way again across town to our hotel, the Intercontinental Beijing Beichen. As it happens, this Intercontinental was built for the Olympics in 2008 and sits right inside the new Olympic Park, overlooking the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium and the aqua blue swimming centre known as the Water Cube. A beautiful hotel and a stunning location on Beichen Road!

I had planned to attend a concert by the China National Symphony (conducted by Michel Plasson) on the evening of our arrival. I had seen it listed on the National Theatre website. I checked the website again after we had settled in, and also called in the very efficient concierge at our hotel for assistance, but the concert listing had disappeared!

From our vantage point near the Olympic Village, Beijing appears very modern, with impressive highway and rail infrastructure. The traditional, however, is much in evidence here too. The morning after we arrived, we visited the hutong area of central Beijing. This is the older part of the city, featuring walled houses with inner courtyards, separated by narrow alleyways. Many hutongs have been demolished to make way for new high-rise buildings, but there is a campaign underway to preserve at least some of them to honor the architecture and lifestyle of ancient times in Beijing.

I had hoped to see Red Cliff, the new Chinese Opera production directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s leading film directors (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) and director of the spectacular show at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; unfortunately, tonight’s performance of Red Cliff at National Centre for the Performing Arts was sold out months in advance!

Next in China Diary: The Forbidden City and Tian'an Men Square

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shanghai in Miniature!

Classical Travels

The Diamond Princess docked this morning at a container port on the Huangpu River, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai. The weather was foggy, with a light drizzle, and at 55 degrees, not particularly inviting for walking tours through the French Concession and the Old City.

At about 8:30 am we boarded shuttle buses into the city. From the terminal near the People’s Park, we walked past the magnificent Shanghai Grand Theatre and down Nanjing Lu (Rd) toward Zhongshan Lu (the “Bund”) which runs along the Huangpu River. Much of Nanjing Lu - divided into East (Dong), and West (Xi) and stretching for several miles - is a wide pedestrian mall, with excellent shopping. Nanjing Lu was the main retail district in Old (1930s) Shanghai and remains so today, with many of the old shops, refurbished and renamed, flanked by upscale new ones.

The rain stopped for a while, but the weather continued to be chilly and windy. We finally reached the waterfront, but there was so much construction on the roadway that we couldn’t see the river, or really take in the sweep of the Bund. We walked past the historic (looking rather ragged – at least from the outside) Peace Hotel built in 1930 by Sir Victor Sassoon, then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the day wandering through the Yu Gardens and Bazaar (photo: right).

Yu Gardens is a modern re-creation of an ancient Chinese city with flying-eaved buildings in a maze of alleyways and ponds. It contains hundreds of shops and is a favorite tourist destination. In spite of the poor weather, it was teeming with visitors when we visited. The one authentic building is the 1784 Huxinting Teahouse approached across a lagoon by a zigzag bridge.

We interrupted our shopping to have lunch at one of the many restaurants in Yu Gardens. Naxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant was founded in 1900 and specializes in steamed buns famous for their “thin covers, full filling and delicious juice.” The restaurant consists of four dining rooms, some more elegant than others. They were all filled today. Naxiang also has a take-out window and it had a long line-up. We ordered two varieties of steamed bun and a curry pastry. Everything was tasty and carefully prepared. Part of the fun in the restaurant is the open kitchen, where four chefs dressed in full white uniforms with tall hats can be seen preparing the noodles and stuffing the pastry.

The rain began again in mid-afternoon and that made catching a taxi back to the bus terminal somewhat difficult. We joined a line of about fifty people at a taxi stand. At the terminal we waited again with hundreds of passengers for the shuttle buses to take us back to the ship.

Lots of interesting musical events listed at the Shanghai Grand Theatre; unfortunately, we did not stay long enough in Shanghai to hear anything but a gift shop vendor at Yu Gardens playing “Happy Birthday” on a miniature Chinese erhu (violin).

The Diamond Princess departed Shanghai about 6:15 pm, and after making a 180degree turn, sailed back out the busy Huangpu River into the Yellow Sea, heading north.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

Photos by Marita

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , ,