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BSO Puts Rural China on ‘The Map’

Yo-Yo Ma Stars in World Premiere of Tan Dun’s Concerto for Cello, Video, and Orchestra

By Eun J. Lee

Features Editor

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tan Dun, conductor

Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Symphony Hall

Feb. 20, 22, 25, 8 p.m.; Feb. 21, 1:30 p.m.

Few things in life live up to my expectations, and this past week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra world premiere of Tan Dun’s The Map, featuring Yo-Yo Ma as soloist and the composer at the podium, was no exception. Tan Dun has described the concerto for cello, video, and orchestra as being “about minority cultures in China, looking at the past as well as the future.”

For me, the musical piece was less of a concert and more of a personal experience.

I can’t say that I really knew what to expect of my evening at the symphony. I suppose I imagined music similar to his Oscar-winning score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which also featured Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. That soundtrack blew me away. It was original and took my imagination away to the rustic wilderness and mythical heroes of a country I had never set my eyes on before.

Like this earlier work, Tan Dun’s concerto does not stand alone. It tells a story about his spiritual journey of rediscovering his native musical roots. The contributions of the cello and orchestra work in tandem with documentary video footage of traditional music forms in three aboriginal villages within a province of his homeland, Hunan.

On the night of the concert, Symphony Hall was packed like I have never seen it. There was a line out the door for the box office, and a man with graying hair and a long trench coat was holding a sign that read “Looking for 2 tickets, preferably together.” The orchestra stage was set up a little differently for Tan Dun’s piece. A large projector screen dropped down from the wall during intermission, and there were three large flat-screen televisions on both sides of the conductor. He also had a small screen on his conducting stand so he could keep the orchestra and soloist in sync with the music coming from the video.

When Yo-Yo Ma walked out on the stage, the whole mood of Symphony Hall changed. You could literally hear a pin drop as his eyes closed, head tilted forward, and his bow was poised and ready to begin Tan Dun’s journey. From the moment Yo-Yo Ma sat down with his amber cello, he seemed to be completely immersed in another dimension -- an intense world of pure emotion and crystal clear resonance which he allowed the packed Symphony Hall to briefly share.

Each stroke of the bow was as smooth as honey to the ears. At times it was hard to distinguish where he ended and his instrument began, and even harder still to decide whether he was an extension of the ebony and horse hair or whether they were an extension of him. At other times it seemed as if the two were in a graceful tango, dancing to the music they were creating.

I’m not sure that anyone in that packed hall really knew what to expect when the first video was projected onto the massive overhead screen. It was a black-and-white still shot of a group of cute old Chinese women sitting next to each other. For a second, it almost seemed delightfully charming with the deep strokes of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello. For a second.

Moments later, the women came into color and their cries floated up even to the furthest corners of the building. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello was hard to hear behind what I later learned was the rural Chinese tradition of professional cry-singing at a funereal mourning. The cello lines and the percussive element in the orchestra were meant to mimic the mourners’ vocal gestures, but they were hard to hear or focus on over the crying.

“Okay, that’s a little weird,” I thought to myself. “But maybe Yo-Yo will play ‘The Eternal Vow’ from Crouching Tiger now.”

The next movement featured a man on the giant screen playing a leaf. How does one play a leaf, you might ask? By blowing it between your lips, of course. With pursed lips and steady hands manipulating the kazoo-like sonority of the leaf into different pitches, the man on the screen played his heart out onto cellulose and chlorophyll. Once again, the cello part mimicked the melody of the performer on the screen in an almost playful duet.

Eight more movements featured similarly fundamental forms of music, from bamboo pipes and tongue singing to “cymbal coloring” and the functional antiphonal singing “mating call” of Miao women.

The stone drum movement stood out the most. The video clip showed Tan Dun’s hands clicking and rubbing stones of different composition, shapes, and sizes, producing a percussional melody whose themes were once again mimicked by the orchestra and cello. A surprising twist to the musical interplay, however, was the use of the three smaller flat-panel screens on the stage, which had been black up until this point in the concert. As the hands manipulated the stones on the big projection screen, each small screen had its own set of hands playing in accord with the rest.

Tan Dun’s The Map was hardly what I would call conventional, but then again, true art defies society’s conventions and questions its values. Artists show the rest of us the beauty in the world that we otherwise would not see.

The music was not mellifluous to my Western ears. Although I appreciated the artistic value of the piece, I doubt I will be downloading the MP3 anytime soon. The experience, however, was unique and thought-provoking. I walked away with a sense of unease. It was different, and I liked it.

If all I wanted to get out of the concert was to pick up a catchy tune, I could have easily spared myself the trouble of trudging into Boston in the sopping cold rain by just turning on the radio and listening to the overplayed, overrated, and meaningless drone of contemporary pop music. The concert was not about feeling familiarity or mindlessly experiencing the music with only your ears. The night’s program provided a mix of the abstract with contemporary through the selections of Shostakovich, Cage, and Britten before the big finale.

The real value in Tan Dun’s work was that it didn’t attempt to dole out pretentious answers to all of life’s problems. Rather, it gave insight into questions that the observer may never have known to exist. The fundamental nature of the musical forms that Tan Dun found in his pilgrimage to China leads one to question the roots of our culture’s own musical heritage and our Western definitions of beauty.

The Map illuminates the universality of music. In Tan Dun’s world, musical instruments are tree leaves and stones. While some may think these instruments primitive, they elucidate the universal importance of music in all cultures around the world.