Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, written in 1999, is a reworking of music from one of his most popular works: Ghost Opera for pipa and string quartet (1994). The work was inspired by China’s 4000-year-old “Ghost Opera” tradition at Taoist funerals (which Tan experienced as a child), where shamans communicate with spirits from the past and future and establish dialogues between nature and the human soul. This dialogue, notes Tan, produces “a new counterpoint of different ages, different sound worlds and different cultures.” In the end, these worldly spirits return to the eternal soil of the earth. Tan describes Ghost Opera as a reflection on human spirituality, which is too often buried by the bombardment of urban culture and technology. The same might be said of this Concerto.
Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra literally begins with a stomp. This initiates a pulsing incantation from the cellos that is picked up by the other strings. Momentum builds to a hair-raising glissando that seems to explode at its zenith. Surely we are in the realm of magic. Tan continues to pepper the score with colorful effects, including shouts of the word “Yao,” improvised sound masses, eerie harmonics from the strings, bent notes, rolls and slides. The work fairly throbs with energy. Only the third movement, Adagio, provides an island of calm. Even the final bars, where the pipa is accompanied by soft, sustained strings, seem loathe to relinquish the fiery spirit of this vibrant work.
–Christine Dahl, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
“The visual and the musical combined to evoke a sense of nostalgia for a lost world, contrasted with today’s mechanized, patterned life, with Gao Renyang the soloist on dizi (bamboo flute) and David Cossin the solo percussionist. All told, a beautiful and touching piece of work.”
–Michael Anthony, Star Tribune, Feb 10, 2002