Opportunity under heaven
Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind)
Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma
There's a scene in Fellini's great movie of childhood memory, Amarcord, in which the inhabitants of a small rural village, hearing about the passage of a great ocean liner close to them, go to the shore to watch it go by. As it passes, they stare at it, agape; it's not just an impressive mass of steel, but a symbol of everything beyond their ken.
To watch the recent transfer of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China was to witness a similar passage, not only of a foreign culture, but also of a before-after division that will be recognized for years--perhaps centuries--to come. Composer and conductor Tan Dun, famed for his Ghost Opera (performed worldwide by the Kronos Quartet) and the opera Marco Polo, no doubt felt the same when he wrote Symphony 1997 to commemorate the reunification.
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Performed July 1 at the ceremony in Hong Kong marking the change, Symphony is an epic work with a sweeping scope--and panoply of voices--that reminds you of cinematic masterpieces like To Live or Raise the Red Lantern. Tragedy, tumult, struggle, and achievement are all emotional tributaries that feed the greater flow of Symphony 1997, a course that relates well the momentum imparted by an accumulation of history. Guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma shows that flirtations with the pop world--such as collaborations with John Williams, Bobby McFerrin, and Mark O'Connor--have not dulled his interpretive edge when it comes to classical music. The deep, woody tone of his instrument can summon either poignancy or power and apply it across thousands of miles or to a single hearth.
To consider Hong Kong is to invoke both the weight of the past and the promise of the future, and Symphony 1997 has found perfect vehicles for both. Throughout the work floats the ethereal purity of the Yip's Children's Choir, an internationally renowned group based in Hong Kong. In these massed voices, one hears both the promise of the future and a contemplation of the cost.
Children are a handy representation of the future, but the past requires a bit more imagination--China has more of it than almost any other nation-state. For that, Symphony makes use of 65 bronze bells--collectively known as bianzhong--that date from approximately 500-200 B.C. Spanning five octaves, these perfectly preserved bells carry ancient China into the now of Symphony 1997. Their finest moment comes at the symphony's end, when--after a triumphant orchestral crescendo--only the voices of the bianzhong roll off into silence like the bones of the dead.