Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (1st = piccolo), 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion (bass drum, brake drums, cans, Chinese big drums, cowbells, fish blocks, pairs of stones, slapstick, Tibetan singing bowls, timpani, tom-toms, waterphone, woodblocks), harp, strings, and solo percussion (bamboo chimes, Chinese paigu tom-toms, Chinese small crash cymbals, cowbells, glockenspiel, marimba, nipple gongs, pair of stones, rainstick, timpani, vibraphone, woodblocks)
First performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (U.S. premiere)
Co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Tears of Nature continues a long-standing association between Tan Dun and the LA Phil that includes his Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra, which received its world premiere in 2003 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and his Crouching Tiger Cello Concerto, which was performed in 2008 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Tan Dun’s earliest musical memories were cultivated during his upbringing in rural China, where he recalls “singing a song in the village to the accompaniment of water, using ceramics to bang out a beat. I was surrounded by ritual music…not Bach, not Beethoven, not Brahms.” Such experiences certainly played a role in the development of his style, and of his musical philosophy: “I have two goals in my heart: I don’t just want to establish a musical idea; I also want to change musical institutions. I want to develop a cross-cultural idea that brings nature and classical music, ancient and modern, together.” Exploring the connection between sound production and the Earth itself, Tan Dun employs “found” instruments – common objects not originally intended for music-making. In Tan Dun’s creations, they are derived from organic sources, such as water-filled containers, paper strips, and small stones.
When discussing The Tears of Nature, and his collaboration with soloist Martin Grubinger, Tan Dun offers, “Martin Grubinger is one of the few musicians that has truly struck a chord in me and made it impossible for me to stop thinking about creating something for him…. This piece is not only written as an admiration of such a refined artist, but as a duet between us. It is about the beautiful sadness of nature’s predicament and the threat to our survival today. Throughout the music, nature’s tears tell us that the threat to our survival is ourselves.”
The Tears of Nature begins with a muted harp ostinato that continues as the soloist and percussion section enter on stones. The orchestra’s staggered entrances preface a piccolo trumpet solo that converses with a melodic timpani line. Further in the movement, woodwinds and brass accompany large Chinese drums as the timpani continue. Soloist, percussion, and orchestra parts grow in rhythmic complexity and urgency to a resounding climax that tumbles into a semi-improvised timpani moment and finishes with interplay between the string section and small Chinese crash cymbals.
The haunting sighs of bowed Tibetan singing bowls (which continue throughout) and the delicate pizzicato of the cellos introduce the second movement. The marimba-centric solo opens with a gentle, single-line melody that expands into octaves as it floats and swells over woodwinds and strings. The work’s first cadenza is a fiery feat of 4-mallet technique that nearly covers the instrument’s 5-octave range. The woodwinds enter with a recapitulation of the first solo theme as the strings mirror the marimba, riding dynamic extremes to a keening fortississimo (fff!) fermata that reluctantly dies away, surrendering to the final piccolo trumpet melody.
The third movement begins without pause. Here, traditional percussion instruments, such as the slapstick, wood blocks, and cowbells make an appearance. The non-pitched instruments accentuate the 16th-note drive that sets the motion for the full orchestra. After a spirited display on mallet instruments, the soloist moves to the final cadenza of the piece, utilizing his full setup to its limits. The orchestra regroups for one final, intense push to the end, pausing at the last moment for a meditation by alto flute and marimba.
– Deanna Hudgins