Review: 'Water Passion' unique sensory experience

Published April 10, 2009 6:00 pm
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Chinese composer Tan Dun, best known as the composer of the musical score to the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," observed the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's birth with "Water Passion: After St. Matthew." This modern-day reflection of Matthew's Gospel, with a nod to Bach, melds Asian and European sonorities and styles, creating a viscerally stunning experience.

Dun picks up on the references to water in St. Matthew's Gospel and builds upon the metaphor of birth and rebirth -- even extending the metaphor to Bach's name, which means stream or brook.

Brady Allred presented the work with the University of Utah Singers and A Cappella Choir on Friday night in the Libby Gardner Concert Hall. To say that the work was fascinating merely scratches the surface.

The composition premiered in the United States just last summer and incorporates wide-ranging vocal techniques, including overtone singing, Tuvan throat singing and other Asian and Middle Eastern styles.

Soprano Alisa Thomason, bass Gary Sorenson, violinist Leslie Henrie, cellist Amy Leung, percussionists Michael Lipsey, Robert Johnson and Parker Wightman, and Yuanlin Chen on electronic sampler helped create this memorable performance.

Seventeen clear Plexiglas bowls in the form of a cross were the visual focal point. Percussionists created a wide variety of sounds with the water, including playing on partially submerged objects. It was easy to become fascinated with the percussionists' actions and lose track of vocal and instrumental lines.

Allred's exceptionally prepared choir picked nebulous pitches out of the air with little reference point, but with confidence and accuracy.

The phenomenal soloists were used as much for atmospheric effect as melody.

Sorenson took the role of protagonist, singing for John the Baptist, Jesus and Peter. His resonant sound, excellent technique and agility gave his singing ample gravitas. Thomason took the role of antagonist, tempter and narrator. Her stratospheric range and stylistic suppleness were impressive. Henrie and Leung's challenging string parts had them all over the fingerboard, sliding, plucking and rapping on the instrument's shells.

The nine-part work began with Jesus' baptism, traced his life through Satan's temptations, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, his death and resurrection. All was tied together melodically with a "monk's chant" in the style of Tibetan monks and a complex chorale. But it was the sensory image and sound of water that ultimately unified the composition.

There is no preparation in Western culture for the moving experience that awaits the listener during the chilling betrayal scene or the serenity of the concluding moments. At first uncomfortable, the music eventually permeates the being and leads to an ultimately moving experience.

U. of U. Singers and

A Cappella Choir

Brady Allred continues to take risks and expose audiences to exciting new music destined to become choral classics.

Where » Libby Gardner Hall, 1375 Presidents Circle, U. campus, Salt Lake City

When » Reviewed April 10; repeats tonight at 7:30

Tickets » $7.50 ($3.50 students) at Kingsbury Hall box office or 801-581-7100

Running time » 2 hours, including intermission.

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