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Tan Dun’s Philadelphia Premiere by Bernard Jacobson

How you are likely to respond to Tan Dun’s The Map depends on what kind of listener you are. If you like to let music simply wash over you, without taking note of where it is going and how it is getting there, this 45-minute “concerto for cello, video, and orchestra” will doubtless have its charms. Certainly enough people loved Tan’s Oscar-winning score for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to provide a ready-made base of admirers for this recent work, and the Philadelphia Orchestra audience, at the performance I attended on 16 November, manifested hearty approval at the end.

It is easy to understand why. The Map, described in the program note as the chronicle of a personal journey, endeavors to marry tradition with technology, searching the past for ways–as the composer puts it–“to keep things from disappearing.” This is a project that it would be hard to disapprove of, and in its implementation Tan deploys some colorful orchestral textures, a virtuoso solo cello part (brilliantly played on this occasion by Anssi Karttunen), and a variety of visual images, back-projected on three screens placed above and around the orchestra.

So far, so perfectly fine. Trouble arises only if you are a listener who cares about form, for the piece doesn’t have any. In the purely musical sphere, the nine movements followed each other without ever establishing a rationale for their succession or for the ordering of their materials. Those materials and their treatment, moreover, lacked memorability to my ears, and I might add that the vigorous beating of drums does not constitute rhythm–there was an unrelieved absence of harmonic pulse, which would be acceptable in music that aimed at stasis, but is not acceptable in a work that clearly tries to progress through time. (Recollection of Inner Voices by the Cambodian-born Chinary Ung, commissioned for and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra 18 years ago, provides a salutary reminder of how it is indeed possible to use Asian thematic elements within a genuinely propulsive harmonic texture.) Then, too, there was the sporadic nature of Tan’s video segments, which included depictions of a man dancing, a woman singing antiphonally with the live solo cellist, a quintet of polyphonic folk-singers, a number of musicians playing instruments, and a man knocking stones together in quite diverting dialog with a member of the orchestra on stage doing the same thing. In evidence for perhaps half of the work’s length, these clips tended to pop up on the screen disconcertingly suddenly (though they were artfully enough faded out at their conclusions) and they were also disappointingly amateurish in quality. The result was rather like being asked to look through someone’s holiday videos while trying to listen to music.

Here we come, I suppose, to the nub of my problem. The kind of listening/watching required by The Map is not attention in any true sense of that word, sadly out of fashion in these days of sound-bites, multi-tasking, and instant gratification. The mixed-media aspect of the piece, especially at the point when an interview with Tan scrolls up the screens, is such that only the kind of person I see on airplanes simultaneously “reading” a book and “listening” to music through headphones could be satisfied with his assimilation of its message. Damagingly on a more profound level, the desultoriness of the visual element, coupled with the episodic nature of the music, reduced an enterprise intent on epic universality to the merely anecdotal and the superficially picturesque.

Tan’s aim is grand, but as yet his compositorial reach is not equal to it. As a conductor, both in Shostakovich’s Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances before intermission, and in his own work, he showed fair competence along with a somewhat stiff baton technique and a weakness for unnecessary movement. But he was at any rate able to draw some splendid playing, both solo and ensemble, from the orchestra, which fully deserved the ovation it received.

Bernard Jacobson

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