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Concert review: Performance of Tan's work hypnotic, outstanding

Published: Tuesday, April 14 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

UNIVERSITY OF UTAH SINGERS, A CAPPELLA CHOIR, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, April 11

Chinese-American composer Tan Dun is known to most people for his score to the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But he is much more than just a film composer. Tan has become one of the most prominent and most commissioned composers of the late 20th and 21st centuries. A prolific composer, with works in all genres, Tan's music has, unfortunately, been virtually unplayed in Utah.

Until now, that is.

Tan's music has finally arrived in Salt Lake City. His "Water Passion" received its local premiere over the weekend by the University of Utah Singers and the A Cappella Choir under the direction of Brady Allred.

A modern setting of the St. Matthew Passion, the work was one of four commissioned by the venerable baroque exponent and conductor Helmuth Rilling and his International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death in 2000.

"Water Passion" is a breathtakingly rich and wondrously compelling work that combines Eastern mysticism with Western religion. It also blends Eastern and Western musical idioms. Overtone singing and the vocal traditions of the Peking Opera are interwoven with baroque four-part harmonizations and medieval organum. The mix is odd, stark and drastic, but utterly spellbinding.

Add to that a carefully structured theatricality in which the stage is divided in half by large clear plastic bowls filled with water and placed in the shape of a cross, and the hypnotic effect the work has on the listener is complete.

And hypnotic is exactly what "Water Passion" is. Tan uses quite simple means to capture the emotional impact the story of Christ's crucifixion has. A violin, cello, synthesizer and three sets of percussion join a large chorus in bringing this story to life.

Of course, the work needs the right conductor to invigorate the music and capture its soul. And Allred did just that. With his perceptive direction he made Tan's "Water Passion" speak to the audience. The listener felt the tenderness of Jesus, the anger of the mob and the horror of Christ's death on the cross.

Allred's interpretative talents were put to the test with this work, and he passed with flying colors. This is not an easy work to do – it demands so much of the conductor and his forces – but Allred dazzled the audience in Libby Gardner Concert Hall, and he showed once again that he is a consummate musician and quite honestly one of the finest choral conductors this country has produced in many years.

But Allred's musical triumph would not have been possible without the talents of the members of the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choir. They gave their all to this work. They brought a professionalism to the performance Saturday that was astonishing. Their vocal skills were tested, and they delivered. They've given some wonderful performances this season, but they outdid themselves with Tan's "Water Passion."

The same holds true for violinist Leslie Henrie, cellist Amy Leung and the two vocal soloists, soprano Alisa Thomason and bass Gary Sorenson. They all gave stellar performances. As did the three percussionists, Michael Lipsey, Robert Johnson and Parker Wightman. They made their huge and complex parts look easy.

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com

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