Reviews: Wolf Trap Opera’s “Hoffmann,” Tan Dun’s “Martial Arts Trilogy”

Reviews from the weekend past:

I attended the Wolf Trap Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann, and appreciated the effort while wondering if it was really necessary to put young singers through that particular endeavor.

Above, an excerpt from Tan Dun’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” soundtrack performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The piece was part of the composer’s “Martial Arts Trilogy” that’s making the rounds this summer; Stephen Brookes reviewed it at Wolf Trap, below.

Tan Dun offers three “Martial” concertos with NSO@Wolf Trap

by Stephen Brookes

Ah, tragic love. Wolf Trap was awash in it — not to mention aerial sword fights, blood-soaked revenge, thundering armies on horseback and all that other irresistible stuff — on Friday night, when the composer Tan Dun brought his hot-off-the-presses “Martial Arts Trilogy” to the Filene Center stage.

Tan Dun, of course, is the Chinese composer who burst into the mainstream after winning an Oscar for his score to the 2000 blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” famous for its balletic, gravity-defying martial arts. He went on to score two similar films — “The Banquet” and “Hero” — and in this new work he’s reconfigured all that music into a set of interlocking concertos, which follow the sacrifices, passions and billowing dresses of the female leads as scenes from the movies unfold overhead.

And as you’d expect, this was an epic, multimedia production, full of big-screen emotions and unabashed melodrama; Beijing Opera meets Hollywood, more or less. Tan Dun’s melodies soared and swooped through the air — like the actors, they were borne aloft on gusts of wind — and he generally steered clear of the avant-garde territory found in much of his other music. But that’s hardly a complaint. This was movie music and proud of it, as voluptuous and stylized as the cinematography of the films, designed to draw you into a weightless fantasy world where raindrops fall in slow motion and the light is always golden and death is rather pretty if you just choreograph it properly. Sure, there was more surface than depth; but it’s summer, and anyway — what a surface it was.

The theme of tragic love tied everything together, and the opening “Hero” concerto followed the story of a woman who sacrificed love to defend her country. Violinist Heather LeDoux Green turned in a fine, full-bodied performance, capturing the sweeping emotions of the work without tugging the heartstrings too obviously. The “Crouching Tiger” concerto that followed was the most musically interesting of the three, and James Lee gave a passionate account on cello; his intimate, beautifully-calibrated solo was a highlight of the evening. The concert built to a rambunctious close with the “Banquet” concerto (about sacrificing love for power) played by the always-exciting pianist Lisa Emenheiser.

The narrative behind all this was a bit hard to follow if you didn’t already know the films, but it made for an entertaining and enjoyable evening nonetheless. Tan Dun himself led the National Symphony Orchestra, and, while it’s interesting to hear a composer conduct his own music, it’s the rare one who can really do it well. Dun seemed ill at ease at the podium, and, honestly, generated about as much electricity as a sack of laundry; kudos to the NSO players for bringing the score to life as well as they did.

--Stephen Brookes

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