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NJSO review: Orchestra gives U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s ‘Earth Concerto’

Percussionist and frequent collaborator of composer Tan Dun, David Cossin featured in the U.S. premiere of the composer’s ‘Earth Concerto’
Photo courtesy of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

January 18 concert by New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

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On January 17-19, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented an important new work heard in the U.S. for the first time: “Earth Concerto for stone and ceramic percussion with orchestra” by Chinese composer Tan Dun. The New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic, respectively, had previously commissioned “Water Concerto” and “Paper Concerto.” “Earth Concerto,” commissioned by Musik-Festival Grafennegg for the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, has become the crowning achievement of Tan Dun’s Organic Music Trilogy.

The traditional symphony orchestra, augmented by Eastern instruments and three batteries of organic bells, produced fascinating tones. The bell sections were created specifically for this concert series from terra cotta, ceramic and other clay pots obtained from a Fort Lee nursery. As the composer put it, the performance had “the sound of New Jersey.” Bringing East to meet West, Zhang Meng played wind instruments: the sheng (a wind instrument in appearance like a small vase with a tiny opening at the top), ceramic horn, and ceramic pipes. The ceramic horn has a tuba character, but it can also sound like the fullness of bass notes from a concert organ. Percussion specialists James Neglia, David Cossin—a frequent Tan Dun collaborator—and James Musto played the bells and two willow drums.

The three-movement work follows a typical concerto format: first upbeat, then contemplative and finally fiery. Each movement has a cadenza, giving the percussionists ample opportunity to improvise. The second movement opens with a sheng solo, sounding much like the orchestra’s flutes, which played relay with it, welcoming the strings and other percussion, before finally leaving the sheng to moan achingly over droning lower strings.

Throughout the work, string players are called on to slap the fingerboard, brass players blow into detached mouthpieces, and everyone onstage occasionally shouts a rhythmic “Hei zo!”—a meaningless phrase that seeks to evoke a primordial call. The composer wished to suffuse the sound palette with organic natural colours at times imitating the roar of the ocean.

Before the concert, Tan Dun spoke animatedly with NJSO Associate Conductor Gemma New, and David Cossin provided musical examples on unfamiliar instruments. Tan Dun spoke of once hearing an unforgettable elephant sound while travelling the world, a sound he sought to include in the concerto. “I couldn’t merely ask the musicians to play like an elephant, but through hip-hop and folk-dance rhythms they were able to reproduce what I had heard in Thailand.”

Maestro Jacques Lacombe led a precise cohesive performance, drawing dynamics from the orchestra as he would from a well-known Beethoven score. The new work held the audience in thralls. At its end, nearly the entire auditorium stood for the enthusiastic ovation. Already with an extensive performance history, “Earth Concerto” may be poised to become part of the active repertoire of orchestras everywhere.

[To read about the concert’s second half, click here for Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and here for interviews with the vocal soloists.]

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