Went to the BSO last night and saw Tan Dun conduct the world premiere of his “multimedia” work “The Map”, with Yo Yo Ma as soloist. Since this was a fairly long piece, sounded to be quite complicated on its own, plus the integration with the video performances that were going on, not to mention a world premiere, I would imagine the bulk of rehearsal time went to this piece. As a result, the first half was a little ragged in spots. The relatively short Shostakovich “Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes”, which the orchestra had never performed before, didn’t have the reckless yet tightly controlled abandon you’d normally expect. The Britten “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes” held together fine, but again wasn’t allowed to cut loose. In this case it might have been more the fault of the conductor. The slow parts didn’t have much atmosphere or space, and the final “Storm” interlude didn’t raise the hackles the way it should have. The middle part of the first half was John Cage’s “The Seasons”, an earlier Cage work that seemed to actually follow standard musical notation without the typical aleatoric aspect you normally get from Cage. I’d never heard this piece before, it was a good contrast to “The Map” in that Cage was also looking for some cross-cultural synergy but here using only standard instruments. It was also unusual for Cage in that it consisted primarily of sustained notes and chords, and not his signature squeaks and grunts.

“The Map” was a tour de force from the orchestra, particularly the four percussionists who were involved in a huge array of Chinese instruments, and from Yo Yo Ma, who played every cello line as though it were the most beautiful melody ever composed. Although playing along with video seems gimmicky in concept, in this case it probably made sense, as the whole point of the piece was to explore and compliment traditional Chinese instruments and vocal techniques, and because the sounds are unfamiliar to western ears it helps to have a context of what you’re actually hearing. The only other way to do it would have been to have all the Chinese soloists actually on stage with the orchestra. The downside was some of the traditional instruments aren’t really instruments at all, and there were a number of giggles from the audience at the visuals of a man making music by blowing on leaves.

The most spectacular part of the video was the Chinese hand cymbals, played by two men as they danced around each other. The variety of sounds they could produce was amazing, and the rapid-fire alternating rhythms were made stunning by actually being able to watch them do it. The artsy part of the video was the stone-tapping, which featured close-ups of the performers’ hands (apparently Tan Dun himself) not only on the main screen but on three other video screens around the stage. This was followed by a quick succession of images of different patterns of stones and stones falling in slow-motion, etc.. The stone playing (ba gua) was the origin of the whole work, so I’m sure they were trying to represent something, but it was a bit much and out of context with the rest of the visuals.

Musically it was a survey of different Chinese musical forms, with some more and some less augmented by the cello and orchestra. For such a large-scale work it ends rather abruptly, but the audience gave it an enthusiastic reception. The problem with this kind of work is that between the skill level of players required and the mechanics of the extra-musical presentation, it’s not likely to get the repetition it deserves. Sadly that means the rest of the world will only be able to experience “The Map” as an artifact preserved on video.