Big Ears Festival 2017 Recap
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Tan Dun and the Juilliard Orchestra at the Met Museum

Tan Dun Juilliard Orchestra Met Museum-010If there's such a thing as a rock star composer, Tan Dun comes pretty close. In addition to winning an Oscar, a Grammy and the Grawemeyer Award, he's written music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a "Disney Symphony" for the opening of the company's new theme park in Shanghai, broadcast to an audience of more than 65 million. 

On a somewhat less grand scale, Tan has amassed a large catalog of chamber and orchestral music, including (to date) five operas. Among these, his most ambitious has been The First Emperor, commissioned by the Met Opera in 2006. Based on the life of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who united China in the second century BCE, the opera showcased Tan's characteristic blend of Chinese and Western music, as well as his unfortunate penchant for cloying melodies. Still, there's no denying the fact that Tan is box office: all seven performances of the run were sold out.

Recently, New York's other Met - the Met Museum - commissioned Tan to write a new work in conjunction with the opening of their landmark exhibition The Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynastiesfeaturing archaeological treasures from China's early empire - including the famous terracotta warriors and other artifacts from Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Tan responded with two not-exactly-new works, both of which were premiered Friday night at the Met's Grace Rainey Rodgers Auditorium by the Juilliard Orchestra, with the Tan himself conducting.

Tan Dun Juilliard Orchestra Met MuseumSymphony of Colors: Terracotta was refashioned from The First Emperor, it's striking avant-garde moments - gliding strings, striking dissonances, chants and shouts - giving way to what sounded like saccharine movie music. At the midway point, three percussionists came to the recess in front of the stage and played sets of ceramic pots while a video of the terracotta warriors played overhead: the "Terracotta interlude." More snapping percussion and brass followed, building to a final Stravinsky-like blast with dissonant growls underneath.

Tan's Triple Concerto: Hero was repurposed from his score for the 2002 Zhang Yimou film Hero, primarily designed to accompany the fast-action martial arts scenes. Unfortunately - or, perhaps this was by design? - I was more focused on the film playing above the orchestra than the performance happening underneath by the three talented young soloists: pianist Robert Fleitz, violinist Ken Hamao, and cellist James Jeonghwan Kim. At the end, the largely partisan crowd gave both Tan and the soloists a warm ovation while I made a beeline for the exhibit upstairs (which opens to the public on Monday April 3.)

More pics on the photo page.