Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)

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WORKS: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)
PERFORMER: Yo-Yo Ma (cello); Yips Children’s Choir, Imperial Bells Ensemble of China, Hong Kong PO/Tan Dun
This symphony was commissioned to celebrate the reunion of Hong Kong and China. As you’d expect from Tan Dun, this is no lightweight occasional piece, but a vast symbolic enactment of the idea of union, in which East and West, ancient and modern confront one another. The present and future are symbolised by a children’s choir, the ancient past by 2,500-year-old gongs, recently discovered in a royal burial site. Mediating between them is the alternately lamenting and declaiming cello (the ‘storyteller’), often sounding like the Chinese one-string erhu or fiddle. This taxing role is played here with tremendous fantasy and passion by Yo-Yo Ma. The two exuberant outer sections of the piece portray ‘Heaven’ and ‘Mankind’; sandwiched between them is a meditative – and rather over-extended – four-movement concerto for cello, gongs and orchestra, based on the four Chinese elements. Tan Dun conjures from these forces a soundscape of wonderful variety, from the faintest gong strokes to fortissimo bursts of joyous acclamation. The effect is naive and sophisticated at once, a combination that Tan Dun has made peculiarly his own. The piece is played throughout with tremendous fervour, which more than compensates for the occasional untidiness. Ivan Hewett