At its premiere in 2000, the “Water Passion” received a 15-minute standing ovation. Concerts — like recent ones at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — still sell out. Theatrical, visual, cross-cultural, creating instruments out of water and stones, the “Water Passion” didn’t just retell the Passion story. It invented a new musical language.
One of four modern, international Passions commissioned by Germany’s International Bach Academy to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, “Water Passion” is unique in merging cultures, religions and musical traditions. The Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as well as many classical works, Tan Dun combines English text from the Gospel of St. Matthew (and a few other biblical passages) with Western and Eastern tonalities: Peking opera, Tibetan overtone singing, chants. The piece is set for chorus, soprano and bass soloists, a violinist and cellist who use Western and Chinese bowing techniques, sampler keyboard and three percussionists, who play on 17 large bowls filled with water that divide the stage in the form of a cross. Illuminated and amplified, the bowls create sounds as the percussionists pour, drip and splash the water using hands, cups, even salad bowls. Other instruments are played by the singers, like the flat rocks that each chorus singer has to rub or hit together.
“It creates a new musical landscape,” says Ioannides.
The water and rocks also act as symbols in the text for strength and rebirth, drawing on Chinese Buddhist concepts and leading to an ending that hints at resurrection.
“Water … is the beginning, and the beginning is the ending, and the end is the beginning,” Tan Dun has said. “That’s the meaning of resurrection. Resurrection isn’t just a new life, but a new idea.”
“It’s a piece I really believe in,” says Ioannides, who conducted it at the Perth International Festival in Australia, and who will direct it again in Athens later this year. “It’s a stunning and expressive work that’s very approachable. It really builds bridges over religious divides and cultural differences.”
For Boers, it’s something more: a piece that comes musically to grips with the horrific suffering of Jesus and all humankind. Satan is voiced by a soprano singing Peking Opera-style; the scene where the crowd condemns Jesus is “hugely percussive, shamanistic,” with rocks banging and “Barabbas!!” a bone-chilling scream.
“Bach is beautiful,” Boers says. “It lets you sit back and enjoy. ... The Tan Dun brings you into the place of the story. It’s an ugly story … so the sounds can be disturbing. But there’s a glimmer of hope at the end.”