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Tan Dun

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Piano Concerto: The Fire (2008),
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, Music Director
G Schirmer Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Sub Category
Soloists and Large Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Programme Note
Tan Dun Piano Concerto: The Fire (2008),
9 April 2008
Lang Lang, piano
New York Philharmonic
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
New York, NY

For any composer, to write for the piano is a challenge. The instrument has a specific character, yet it can be like an orchestra in itself…

The piano, though, has difficulty reflecting the surface of oriental style. It is not like a string instrument. It cannot use glissando–at least on the outside–which is very important to the character of Eastern music. As a string player myself, much of what mirrors my musical life could be lost. I have to think of new ways to use the instrument, perhaps invent new techniques to make it familiar… to find something new that fits on the continuum, so there is balance.

I am a string player, but I also play percussion. These are the elements of my life: fire, which is percussion, and water, which is string. And once you look beneath the surface, you see many things about the piano that can reflect oriental life. You have percussion. You can achieve a transparent, crystalline timbre that reflects the purity of the guqin. And once I started thinking of this, I found my approach to the piano. The guqin gives me the room and imagination to write. In this way, I can hear the instrument of Chopin and Bartók relocated to some dream plane as an ancient mountain lute.

—from an interview with music journalist Ken Smith

No doubt the CD will sell millions and pick up a Grammy.
Michael White, The Telegraph,22/04/2009
It is not often that a performance at the New York Philharmonic generates the buzz that attended Wednesday night’s premiere of Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto. Mr. Tan, whose concert works combine Asian elements with the avant-garde, became an international celebrity when his ferociously propulsive film score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” earned him an Academy Award in 2001. Mr. Tan’s concerto was written for the phenomenally popular piano virtuoso Lang Lang, who attracts devoted audiences no matter what he plays. Avery Fisher Hall was nearly full for the concert, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. In a spoken introduction, the composer Steven Stucky predicted that the concerto would be both a crowd pleaser and a head-scratcher. I’m not sure about the head-scratcher part. Though the 30-minute piece is eclectic, skillfully written and viscerally dramatic, the music seemed to give away most of its secrets on first hearing. But it is certainly a crowd pleaser. In the best sense, Mr. Tan’s concerto, vibrantly scored for an orchestra rich with Western and Asian percussion instruments, has the entertaining vitality and coloristic allure of his brilliant film music. In a taped interview that was screened just before the premiere, Mr. Tan said that the concerto was inspired by his love for the martial arts and that Mr. Lang, a pianist he reveres, embodies the qualities of a martial arts master in his playing. The ancient practice, he explained, is an art of seeming contradictions. A stance of physical stillness can convey tension and quickness, and bursts of action can seem cool and deliberate. Mr. Tan tries to capture this duality in music that veers from passages of stillness to explosions of energy. Each of the three movements is broken up with episodic sections. The piece begins with a low, softly ominous rumbling trill in the piano, over which the orchestra floats pungent, deceptively calm chords that blithely slink from harmony to harmony. Soon the percussion section, alive with pummeling drum riffs, intrudes, prodding the pianist into bouts of fidgety chords and spiraling runs. The Bartok concertos, with their astringent harmonies and percussive piano writing, seem a model for Mr. Tan here. Yet during extended passages of dreamy lyricism, when the piano plays delicate melodic lines over rippling arpeggio accompaniments that sound like Asian salon music, Mr. Tan seems to be channeling Rachmaninoff. The orchestral writing is full of striking touches, as when a propulsive episode in the piano is backed up by rhythmically staggered fortissimo chords of slashing strings and clanking brake drums. And Mr. Tan proved good at his word in treating Mr. Lang as a martial artist of the keyboard. In the most hellbent outbursts Mr. Lang played cluster chords with fists, karate chops and even the full weight of his forearms. Yet there are just as many delicate moments where Mr. Lang created spans of fleecy passagework and haunting melodic lines of fast repeated notes, an evocation of the guqin, the Chinese zither. Mr. Slatkin drew a sweeping, urgent and nuanced performance from the orchestra, and at the conclusion he, Mr. Lang and the elated composer received prolonged ovations.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times,11/04/2008
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