EIF: Buddha Passion

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Where Bach’s Passions narrate the Christian path to salvation – symbolised by the crucifixion and resurrection – Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion follows the young prince’s path to Nirvana and its foundation in compassion. If one were to draw any musical comparisons, it might be the mutual simplicity of Dun’s Chinese chants versus the Lutheran chorales used by Bach to provide the popular commentary, the voice of the people.

Either way, Dun’s epic conception was a powerful vehicle for the opening of Nicola Benedetti’s debut Edinburgh Festival programme as artistic director, a Scottish premiere performance conducted by the composer and employing the visual theatre of two choruses (the Edinburgh Festival and RSNO Youth Choruses), an exotic mix of solo performance traditions, and the powerhouse of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Dun has proclaimed this piece essentially a concert opera, a quality intrinsic in the literally thousands of murals in China’s historic Mogul Caves – many of them depicting musicians – that inspired its composition. As such, we witness beyond its purely musical strength a sense of animation, physical interaction and sensuous colourings. 

Its Edinburgh performance recorded maximum impact through the palpable engagement of its constituents. Dun drew from the adult chorus and its ethnic chants the most opulent of unisons, the singers equally happy to throw inhibitions aside when their role converted to primal laughter or dramatic gesture and exhortation. The youth chorus topped this with singing of pure and lustrous resilience.

With such a diverse team of solo performers, the key characterisations never failed to surprise, extending from the sparkling precision of soprano Louise Kwong and mezzo-soprano Samantha Chong, and cool-headed Western-style persuasiveness of tenor Chen Chen and baritone Sun Li, to the challenging unorthodoxy of Pipa player and dancer Chen Yining enacting a truly mesmerising choreography, indigenous singer Tan Weiwei, and the extraordinary subterranean vocal reverberations and harmonic overtones created by Mongolian throat singer (and morin khuur player) Batubagen.

Combined with the luxuriant orchestral score – a sound world constantly bouncing between Puccini, mystical avant-garde and unadulterated 20th Century Fox that proved easy meat for the RSNO – Dun presented us with an initially soft-centred, but ultimately profound performance. If spectacle, scale and originality are key to a successful EIF opener, this did the trick.

Ken Walton