Tan Dun’s New Concerto for Orchestra

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

This is an enjoyable disc, but it’s also clear that Tan Dun gives himself credit for more originality than he actually exhibits. His current musical style consists of non-functional tonal harmony, shamanistic drumming and other rhythmic ostinatos, lots of primal shouting and stamping from the players, pitch-bending from the brass and woodwinds, what sounds like controlled aleatoric textures, and every now and then, a tune. These elements alternate in various combinations and result in a certain sameness in all three of these works, even among the four movements of the Concerto for Orchestra. Whether you like it or not will depend on how you feel about these various procedures. You might think of him as a cross between George Crumb (the shouting, whispering, and primal elements) and Alan Hovhaness (modal, hymn-like passages and aleatoric writing, pitch-bending).

As I said, it’s not as original as it wants to be, but it is colorful, fun, and sincere. Symphonic Poem on Three Notes is a tribute to Placido Domingo; the shouting of the singer’s name becomes a bit wearisome at the end, but I can imagine the work making a fine occasional piece with other names substituted as the case requires. Orchestral Theatre is a brilliant fantasy in which the composer employs the above strategies to create a work full of atmospheric intensity. The Concerto for Orchestra, in four movements, lacks internal contrast despite the evocative titles (Light of Timespace, Scent of Bazaar, The Raga of Desert, The Forbidden City). Indeed, they are somewhat deceptive: Scent of Bazaar, for example, has more the character of a scherzo than anything else. It does, however, exploit different sections of the orchestra in aptly concerto-like fashion, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic plays it with gusto.

Indeed, all of these performances, under the composer’s direction, sound about as fine as he could possibly have desired, and the engineering is stunning. If some of this sounds like damning with faint praise, it may be because Tan Dun sounds more comfortable devising orchestral accompaniments, thus explaining his success in opera and film scoring. As a composer of independent orchestral works, I’m not sure he’s thought out an optimal approach to questions of form. But the talent is there, and it’s amply on display on this disc.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

  • DUN, TAN:
    Concerto for Orchestra; Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theater

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