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A Sound as Magnetic as Hong Kong Itself

'Symphony 1997' makes the colony's story universal by employing musical styles from around the world.

June 29, 1997|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

This week, two cultures, two economies, two social systems, two political entities that seem very different will merge. The world watches, fascinated and frightened by Hong Kong.

Well, here's something to help alleviate the worry. The Assn. for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong With China has commissioned a symphony to commemorate the momentous occasion. A small excerpt from it will be played Tuesday in Hong Kong during the official ceremonies, and a bit more during the evening's celebrations. Later in the week it will have its full premiere first in Hong Kong and then in Beijing.

Although not yet performed, "Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind)" has already been recorded by Sony Classical and the CD will be released on Tuesday. And it is not what you might expect, certainly nothing at all resembling the Westernized Chinese music that is so much the official soundtrack of the mainland, and that will be part of another "hand-over" commemoration, the "Bravo, China!" event Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.

In fact, the hourlong "Symphony 1997," for orchestra and children's chorus, is as magnetic and crazy as modern-day Hong Kong--yearning for peace; mixing past, present and future. It houses a major solo cello part for Yo-Yo Ma and also makes use of a set of Imperial bells from the 4th century B.C.

The composer is Tan Dun, a victim of the Cultural Revolution who came to America in 1986 and is probably the fastest-rising composer in the world today. And maybe the most fearless.

Like Hong Kong, Tan's new symphony is full of extravagance and inexplicable cultural conflicts, something for which the 39-year-old composer is already well prepared. In his opera, "Marco Polo"--premiered in Munich last year and slated for New York City Opera in the fall--Mahler, Li Po (the Chinese poet Mahler set in his "Das Lied von der Erde"), Dante, Shakespeare, Kubla Khan and Scheherazade all participate. It's musical styles cover the world, from Indian raga to Peking Opera to Chinese folk music to the West (from the Middle Ages to now).

Tan is also the composer of "Ghost Opera," an experimental theatrical work for the Kronos Quartet with an added part for the plucked Chinese string instrument, the pipa, that can be heard on a beautiful new Nonesuch CD. Here Bach and ancient China interact. A composer who draws inspiration equally from his background in Peking Opera, his academic musical studies at Columbia University and his involvement with John Cage's downtown circle, Tan has also been bitten by the Hollywood bug. He's just completed scoring a new film, by "Primal Fear" director Gregory Hoblet, titled "Fallen," to be released in the fall; Tan describes the film as a thriller about fallen angels. A great favorite in Great Britain, Tan also manages to juggle another geographically and musically incongruous career as resident composer-conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony.

All of those Tans are simultaneously apparent in "Symphony 1997," and I doubt that any composer has ever served quite so many masters--commercial, political and spiritual--so successfully or so exuberantly in a symphony before. Puccini, meet the Peking Opera singers who nightly wail on Temple Street in Hong Kong; Richard Strauss, shake hands with John Cage; Carl Orff, ring bells that lay silent in a tomb all those centuries; Beethoven, sing your "Ode to Joy" along with Chinese folk music.

Although Tan has a reputation as a master of music-world politics, he insisted last week, on the phone from Amsterdam where he was conducting before heading off to Hong Kong, that he had no interest in getting embroiled in any Chinese political imbroglios concerning the take over. "I am interested in doing this symphony only if I can use it as a peace event," he said. "Everybody is thinking about politics, but to me this is a religious event, an opportunity to talk to the soul."

Still, politics in this situation are unavoidable, and Tan squirms around questions of his own tender political relations with the China he fled. "As a Chinese person, I have very, very complicated feelings," he finally admits.

"It's a great historic moment when, after 100 hundred years, the situation can be resolved in a peaceful way. All the Chinese in the world, all of us, are very happy to see this happening. Yet, today's Hong Kong has now become a window from East looking West; it's a free land, politically and economically, and it's a very gorgeous and exciting land. So, of course, we are all worried about the future of Hong Kong if it does not remain the same kind of capitalist society.

"But for the past 10 years, Hong Kong business has also been felt all over the mainland China, influencing it enormously. And that influence is bad as well as good--good in its spreading of democratic ideas but bad in that Hong Kong pop culture is wiping out traditional Chinese culture, even in Tibet."

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