The First Look at ‘The First Emperor’
By Anthony Tommasini
From the New York Times - September 10, 2006
There is nothing more exciting than the premiere of a new work that seems destined to stick with you from the moment it starts.
I may forever associate the 2005-6 season with the premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs,” commissioned by James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performed at Symphony Hall. That haunting, refined and emotionally revealing song cycle was like a love poem from Mr. Lieberson to his wife, the unforgettable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sang it sublimely in what would be one of her last performances before her death in July.
As I look ahead to the coming season, several intriguing premieres catch my interest, starting with Tan Dun’s ambitious opera “The First Emperor,” which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and receives its premiere there (Dec. 21).
With Mr. Tan, an immensely skilled and eclectic composer, it’s hard to know what to expect. He has written works that are baffling in their banality, like “Red Forecast,” a multimedia piece for soprano, orchestra, a battalion of percussionists, video projections and audio tracks.
The work is like some pretentious 60’s happening, with chanting, chaos, images of students rioting, a gaggle of voices. Yet other pieces have been close to entrancing, notably “Water Passion After St. Matthew.”
Though though marred by exasperating stretches of meditative vamping, the work has some ethereal music and mesmerizing instrumental colors. And Mr. Tan’s Oscar-winning score for the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a knockout from start to finish: arresting, brutal, yet somehow charming.
Mr. Tan’s new opera is set in the ancient court of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, a role conceived for Plácido Domingo. Count on the production by the film director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”) to be elaborate and flashy.
How will it turn out? Not knowing is part of the fun.
Perhaps the New York Philharmonic grew tired of reading about the excitement the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been generating with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at its stunning new home, Disney Hall. Rather than just bring him here to conduct, the New York Philharmonic commissioned Mr. Salonen, an accomplished composer, to write a new piano concerto for Yefim Bronfman, which receives its premiere in New York (Feb. 1-3), with Mr. Salonen conducting. As a consolation prize the Los Angeles Philharmonic gets first dibs on recording the concerto.
On a smaller scale, the eminent pianist Peter Serkin, whose passion for contemporary music is as intense as it was during his young rebel days as a member of the uncompromising quartet Tashi, is scheduled to give the premiere of a new chamber work by the British composer Oliver Knussen. Despite having written some bracing and ingenious scores, Mr. Knussen has had a woeful record of meeting deadlines. This work was supposed to have had its premiere when Mr. Serkin presented his Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall several seasons back. This time the delayed premiere by Mr. Serkin and the Zankel Band is to take place at Zankel Hall (April 13), with Mr. Knussen conducting.
This season at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is the first planned completely by the ensemble’s new artistic directors, the pianist Wu Han and the cellist David Finckel. They have devised many programs that intriguingly mix old and new works. But I’m looking forward to an all-Leon Kirchner concert.
The society took part in commissioning this towering American composer to write his String Quartet No. 4. One way to present its New York premiere would be as part of a varied program that might place the new work in a larger musical context.
Instead the society will present the Orion String Quartet performing all four Kirchner quartets at Alice Tully Hall (March 7). They will be played in order, starting with the first, composed in 1949. Here is a chance to follow Mr. Kirchner’s exploration of the quartet genre over a span of nearly 60 years.
Out of town, admirers of the elegant composer Kaija Saariaho are looking forward to her 60-minute oratorio, “La Passion de Simone.” The work will have its premiere in Vienna this fall, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will give the American premiere (Jan. 12-14).
James Levine, who continues to champion tough-guy modernists, presents the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Eighth Symphony with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall (Feb. 15). Those who find Mr. Wuorinen’s music too off-putting in its complexity should hear Mr. Levine perform his works. In recent years Mr. Levine’s palpable excitement for the music has come through in stunning accounts of daunting Wuorinen scores.
On the other end of the contemporary-music spectrum John Adams has fashioned the “Doctor Atomic” Symphony from his engrossing and courageous opera “Doctor Atomic,” which had its premiere last season in San Francisco. David Robertson, who is galvanizing audiences as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, conducts the premiere in St. Louis (March 16), then brings it to Carnegie Hall (March 31).
As always with premieres from searching composers, do not assume anything.