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Dessoff Meets Tan Dun in 21st-Century Passion
by Erika Rohrbach for Vocal Area Network
Posted December 7, 2002

Image from Water Passion after St. MatthewNext week The Dessoff Choirs (Kent Tritle, Music Director) will be featured in the New York premiere of Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew, one of the hottest tickets in this year’s Next Wave Festival at BAM. Commissioned by Helmuth Rilling and Stuttgart’s Internationale Bachakademie Passion 2000 Festival to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the choral and instrumental performance piece had its U.S. premiere in Oregon this past July. Tan, the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer best known for his Academy Award-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, will conduct.

In this “mesmerizingly beautiful” (The Times, U.K.) work, Tan re-imagines the Passion as a multicultural amalgam of musical traditions, natural sounds, percussion, and song. While Dessoff is no stranger to cutting-edge performances, having sung in the North American premiere of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5 at the 2000 Next Wave Festival, this is the first time in its 78-year history that the choir has shared the stage with bowls of water.

Seventeen transparent bowls of water illuminated from below form a large cross that separates the playing areas for the male and female choral voices, the two vocal soloists (soprano Elizabeth Keusch and bass Hao Jiang Tian), and the two string soloists (violinist Cho-Liang Lin and cellist Maya Beiser). Members of the Talujon Percussion Group (David Cossin, Dominic Donato, and Thomas Kolor) are positioned at three ends of the cross, with the conductor downstage center at the fourth.

While the text of the piece is drawn mostly from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Tan uses water both literally and figuratively to deliver his message of “the unity of the eternal and the external.” One of the recurring lines delivered by the chorus, “a sound is heard in water,” is emphasized to great effect by the periodic stirring and rippling of the water bowls and the playing of “water drums”—wooden salad bowls inverted and floating in basins of water—and other percussive water instruments.

Musically, the eight-movement work combines Tuvan overtone singing, monk chants, and the high-pitched intonations of Eastern opera with four-part chorales that recall Bach’s Passions. Sounds of exotic ancient stringed instruments, processed electronically by digital sampler Yuanlin Chen, meld with the rhythmic tapping of water-softened stones, Tibetan finger bells, and the more familiar cello and violin, all emitting a wide range of pitches, melodies, and tones.

As in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the choir’s role shifts back and forth from that of witness to participant as the story of Jesus’s baptism to resurrection unfolds. Here Tan’s choral demands are many, from extended jumps in range and overtone singing to half-voiced phrases, synchronized laughter, and all-out shouting. One needs little imagination to envision the dramatic power of 66 voices simultaneously screaming “Blasphemy!” or coldly whispering “kill him.” Sharp contrasts in mood throughout the piece culminate in the gentle evocation of Tan’s hope for “the birth of a new world, a better life.”

Tan Dun: Water Passion After St. Matthew / Buy it at AmazonWater Passion after St. Matthew runs for three performances at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn) December 11, 13, and 14 at 7:30 PM. All performances are sold out. Inquiries about returned tickets may be directed to BAM Ticket Services at (718) 636-4100. Those unable to attend a performance may wish to check out the world premiere recording (S2K 89927) released by Sony Classical on November 19, 2002. This 2-CD release features many of the soloists performing at BAM, as well as the RIAS-Kammerchor Berlin (available from Amazon.com).

Founded in 1924 by Margarete Dessoff, The Dessoff Choirs has established a reputation for pioneering performances of choral works from the pre-Baroque era through the 21st century. The group’s 78th season, which began this August at Lincoln Center with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque in performances of Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea, and with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Handel’s oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, will conclude in May at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola with a celebration of the music of the new Spain, featuring works from the late Renaissance and Baroque Cathedral traditions of Puebla and Guatemala City, as well as Ginastera’s Lamentations of Jeremiah, a landmark of 20th-century choral music.

In February, Dessoff joins the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York in an historic collaboration with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Czech Philharmonic in two performances of rarely-performed works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev at Carnegie Hall. Most recently, the group appeared with the American Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ives’ Symphony No.4 and John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers at Avery Fisher Hall. More information on The Dessoff Choirs may be found at the group’s web site, www.dessoff.org.

[Editor's note: see also A New Passion Gives Water a Central Role, a preview by James R. Oestreich in The Times of December 8; and Evoking the Sounds of Water in a New Crucifixion Account, a review by Anthony Tommasini in The Times of December 13.]


Soprano Erika Rohrbach is a singer with and Program Editor of The Dessoff Choirs.


Content Contact: Erika Rohrbach
Revision Date: December 13, 2002.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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