The Saratogian

The Saratogian
By Judith White

“Tan Dun leaves audience spellbound in wake of his last performance”

It’s doubtful anyone who attended Sunday’s Chamber Music Festival event will soon forget composer Tan Dun, nor the other top-billed performers, pianist Andre Watts and cellist Maya Beiser.

The program was the sixth in the eight-concert festival at SPAC’s Little Theater, and featured two amazing works by the festival’s composer-in-residence, along with two more traditional pieces.

Debussy’s Sonata in F Major for Flute, Viola and Harp was the other “standard” on the program. Although it is not a piece performed often, harpists like Elizabeth Hainen are not commonly available. As principal harp with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hainen had soloed with the orchestra in an amphitheater concert at SPAC just the evening before, as had Watts. She was joined in the Debussy by flutist Jeffrey Khaner and violist Burchard Tang, also members of the orchestra.

The trio’s performance was delicate and shimmering with fleeting harmonies casting a spell. The three musicians worked their sound together to produce a spectrum of color with no beginning and no end.

Tan Dun dedicated his 1991 “Elegy” to those who died at Tiananmen Square in 1989, calling them innocent students. Certainly parts of the piece – moments of slow paper-tearing, prayer bells ringing interrupting silence, violent bursts of banging – can be linked to that historic incident, although the composer also cites as influence a 13th century drama of a woman wrongly executed.

Tan’s other piece on this program, “Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience,” had a different mood and a different flair, showing the composer’s penchant for the theatrical, and for his appreciation of sound, and silence, throughout whatever space he’s afforded.

The trios were placed throughout the Little Theatre, including an instrumentalist at each of the top balcony entrances, grouped by instrument category: blown, plucked, bowed, and struck varieties.

Tan was stationed dramatically on the front corner of the stage, next to Liuzzie, who was surrounded by yet another combination of percussion equipment. Davyd Booth stood with one hand under the lid of the grand piano on stage, although it’s unclear whether this was a “struck” or “plucked” instrument. Beside him were the long strings of David Faye’s double bass.

Tan describes this work as creating a sacred circle of sound, space and silence, and indeed he conducted whole bars of silence into alternately chilling and tranquil being. He also led the audience into the piece with orchestrated entries of their own vocalizations.