Live Review: Philly Serves Tan Dun’s Tea, Curtis Recitals Shine

Intrepid music lovers should head North on 95, cut over onto 76 and head into Center City Philly for action. First gem: Opera Company of Philadelphia. This is the only East Coast company, so far as I know, with the balls and the budget to invite Chinese composer Tan Dun to conduct his own opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul.

I was lucky enough to be gifted a front row seat for the Feb. 21 performance by a very awesome sister. Dun does not so much conduct as conjure from a well within; I couldn’t stop watching him the entire performance. What makes an operatic success? Not the story, but the spectacle; not the characters, but the voices. Tea’s vocal lines are almost at home in Italian opera, although the words are disappointingly English. Haijing Fu’s unwavering baritone grounded the proceedings well, but Dun’s instrumental abandon is what makes the opera glisten and resound.

The opening of Act I sets the mood like no other overture. All builds toward the main character, once-a-prince, now-a-monk, Seikyo, draining a bowl empty of tea. On a dark empty stage, three female percussionists come out into glass boxes jutting out from the wings, where illumined bowls of water await. They realize all the percussive possibilities of water: throwing water, pounding water with glasses, lifting it and straining it through a sieve. The singers who process out on stage around Seikyo hiss like kettle steam. From behind us, in the crowd, comes the eerie and half-melancholy plaint of two women playing the water phone with a bow. (You’d recognize its sound from films. While the water phone looks like an urchin wrested up from the sea, it’s actually a stainless steel bowl that resonates, a neck rod by which the player takes hold, and brass rods ringing around the bowl which can be bowed.) Seikyo’s conclusion to his fellow monks: “Making tea is hard. The hardest.”

The acts unfold that truth in backstory. The overall simplicity of Tea’s act construction reminds me of a Palestrina motet like Sicut cervus — multiple voices pass short passages back and forth  – but words fall short of sublime here. Lovers of translated haiku may enjoy the repetitions of delicate phrases vocally unfurled like watching Green Snail Spring Tea or flower tea blossom in a cup. But I agree with Nico Muhley on this big shortcoming (typical of opera): the libretto!

He cites oft-repeated phrases like “Though bowl is empty/scent glows” as insulting Pidgin poetry. (Not quite as bad as the simple lines in the musical South Pacific). It does seem out of place. Although who’s more to blame: marketability factors, Tan Dun or his fellow librettist Xu Ying? It left me longing for Seikyo’s lover, Lan, daughter of China’s Emperor, to pour forth in a dialect, any dialect.

But I didn’t quaff Tan Dun’s Tea for the words. I came for the complete theatrical realization of his trademark: playing the elemental whole. Act II, titled “Paper” shows the full range of humble materials against orchestral splash. Mallets on paper punctuate and electrify the action onstage between the lovers struggling, on a journey of pent-up emotion, to find the authentic book of tea. Even orchestral players jumped into the fray. There’s a much torn-and-tape-mended page in every score that reads: “use this page for loud page turning at letters A&C.” And full paper-shredding chorus backed the main action. This drama overshadowed the extended love scene between Seikyo and Lan. Red silk seamlessly shrouded and then revealed the embracing couple, but the effect paled in impact compared to the red-cloaked love scene in the movie Hero, despite the best efforts of Kelly Kaduce and her leading man.

Act III “Ceramic, Stones” pushed the three onstage percussionists, Haruka Fujii, Yuri Yamashita and Chihiro Shibayama to the fore. Literally, they played pitched ceramic pots at the very front of the stage with gamelan virtuosity that was gentler on the ear. Striking stones so hard you’d expect sparks, the chorus spiced up the requisite sword play between Seikyo and Lan’s jealous, meddlesome brother (sung by a tenor I just love to hate, Roger Honeywell).

Small atmospheric details had this opera touch all the senses, down to incense, mossy scents changed to raw, dark pungency by the curtain’s fall. While some in the audience might have agreed with Seiko’s line: “Savoring tea is the hardest,” I’d have to say they’re wrong to apply it to Tan Dun’s opera.

Bonus second gem: If you have time, take in a free recital at Curtis Institute’s Field Concert Hall on 1726 Locust Street. The March 12 concert was worth a trek via trolley and a walk in the rain. Yen Yu Chen, pianist, offered a gracious and diverse program. Her exemplary rendering of Oliver Messiaen’s “Un reflet dans le vent” jumped effortlessly from the bright, breezy tumbling passages into an unsparing entrance of the explosive lower register. Exuberance burst as her left hand crossed over the right again and again building momentum. The same discipline carried over into a resplendent Toccata, Op. 11 by Sergey Prokofiev. Unwavering velocity should be her ally in whatever piano competition she enters.

However, I’m most indebted to pianist Andrew Tyson and cellist Gabriel Cabezas for disabusing me of the notion that I was bored to tears by Edvard Grieg. When I told them afterwards that they made me admire a composer so loved by the likes of Queen Victoria, they echoed the thought. When they first played this Sonata in A Minor, they stopped midway in shock. Is this really how Grieg wrote it?

The best thing about recitals at Curtis (or Baltimore’s own Peabody) is witnessing the hard-won joy of development: the drama of nerves and the conquering of tough passages. While their sonata was not effortless, nor perfect, it did resonate with astonishing maturity. They milked the work for all its subtlety. On cellist Cabezas’ face, a Botticelli angel from the curved lip to the curled hair, you could see the shimmer of the future soloist. Will he be Alban Gerhardt of his day?

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