Early this month I saw two concerts in Philadelphia that demonstrate a new trend — using visual effects inspired by film to highlight that purist of art forms, classical music. One concert was high-budget, one low. They were both effective, and they both invite interesting questions.
First I attended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s U.S. premier of Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra. I’d heard about this piece when it was still in the making. My friend Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist of the Orchestra, mentioned that she was commissioning Tan Dun to write a harp concerto for her.
“I’m going to be meeting with Tan when the Orchestra is in China,” she told me last May. “He said the work will be about Nu Shu, the secret language of women.”
I’d learned of Nu Shu, “Women’s Writing” through Lisa See’s bestselling novel of 2006, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Nu Shu is a centuries-old spoken and phonetically written language developed by women in a remote part of Hunan Province so they could communicate without the interference of men.
Following the example of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Tan Dun traveled to the interior of his native Hunan Province to a village where Nu Shu is still spoken. With a film crew, he recorded elderly women singing traditional songs in Nu Shu, passing down the words and melodies to the younger female generation. He then set, as it were, an accompaniment, for full orchestra and brilliant harp solo, to these native songs.
The 40-minute piece and film (which was shown on three separate narrow scrolls hanging above the Kimmel Center stage) does not follow a narrative arc in the typical Western sense. It shows — over and over again — short scenes of women’s lives — simple domestic chores, bridal ceremonies, recountings of pain and sorrow. As might be expected of a film composer, Tan Dun uses the color of the orchestra to great effect, as well as unusual amplified sounds, such as the rhythmic dribbling of handfuls of water into a filled vessel — a device he used in his opera Tea: A MIrror of Soul. The audience responded with enthusiasm.
Equally engaging, “Dial L for Liebeslieder” was the low-budget but impressive staging of Johannes Brahms’ Liesbeslieder Waltzes for four singers and piano duo, cleverly conceived and performed by a new entity, the Artsong Repertory Theater Company. The event was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (whose basement hosts many indie-rock concerts popular with GenX’ers.)With a simple stage set and stark lighting, the ARTC used the Liesbeslieder Waltzes as well as other art songs and short jazz-age piano solo works, to tell a story of passion, adultery, and murder.
Complete with film-noir outfits, makeup, and hair (trench coats, pumps, swept-back barrettes) the acting was convincing while still knowing and tongue-in-cheek.
More important, the performance was beautifully sung. Did we need staging to appreciate the music? The richly blended voices of Brian Major, Cara Latham, Cory O’Niell Walker, and Jennifer Beattie, along with the sensitive piano accompaniments of Jillian Zack and Adam Marks were, for me, satisfying in their own right. It doesn’t get any better than great singing of great lieder.
But if clever staging and visuals brings attention to this incredible repertoire, I’m all for it. After all, music lives for its audience. Using the eyes to win over the ears is a W by me.