Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion at the Royal Festival Hall review – an immense work that straddles East and West

When Tan Dun’s score for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Oscar in 2000, he entered a realm of celebrity to which few classical composers have access. Now he’s

even a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador alongside the likes of Laura Bush and Princess Caroline of Hanover. Celebrity indeed. Born in China in 1957 and living in the US since

1986, he writes music that travels easily across cultures and between eras. He readily embraces the broad, schmaltzy lushness of film music, yet he’s equally at home exploiting

Western avant-garde traditions or ancient Chinese rituals and instruments. All these strands come together in his Buddha Passion, which received its UK premiere last night,

conducted by Tan himself. It’s an immense work requiring not only the London Philharmonic Orchestra but also two weighty choirs (the London Philharmonic and the London Chinese

Philharmonic) and six soloists, including a dancer who also played the pipa (a venerable Chinese instrument akin to a lute). Lasting 90 minutes, the piece takes the notion

of ‘passion’ from the Christian tradition of musical works (notably by Bach) telling the story of Christ’s suffering and death. Here, the story, in six episodes, focused on the

path to Buddhist enlightenment. The text was in Chinese and Sanskrit (eloquent English-language surtitles were provided), while the music swung back and forth between West and

East.