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The work begins and ends with the sound of water.

Tan Dun goes beyond the traditional telling of the Passion by beginning with Christ’s baptism and ending with an evocation of resurrections, suggesting, in the words of Ecclesiastes,

“a time to love, a time of peace, a time to dance, a time of silence…”

The stage is defined by seventeen transparent water bowls, lit from below. These form a large cross that separates the playing areas for the two choruses (one of sopranos and altos, one of tenors and basses), the two soloists (soprano, bass) and the two string players (violin, cello). Three percussion players take their position at three ends of the cross, with the conductor at the fourth.

The first words heard in the new Passion, “A sound is heard in water,” are echoed by the gentlest of drops from the percussionists.

All of the performers play pairs of smooth-contoured stones, specified by the score to be “from the sea or a river.”

Tan uses a remarkably wide range of vocal styles, from the overtone singing of Mongolia to what he calls the “calligraphic” high-pitch writing of Peking Opera.

These techniques are combined with chorale-style four-part writing for the chorus and declamatory recitatives for the soloists, which pay homage to Bach’s Passions. Tan’s words generally sets the words of Christ with a tenderness and directness that set them apart from the otherwise elaborate vocal writing.

All of the acoustic sounds, which merge conventional Western instruments as well as those that evolved along the ancient Silk Road, are subjected to electronic processing; a digital sampler adds another source of “found” sounds.