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Marco Polo in the
Forbidden City

Hugh Wolff, Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood Director of Orchestras and the NEC Philharmonia kick off the Conservatory’s Music: Truth to Power festival with this concert highlighted by Tan Dun’s Concerto for Orchestra (Marco Polo)(2012). Wolff, who conducted the four-movement work in 2012 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, brings it to Boston for its North American premiere. He also leads the Brahms Symphony No. 1.

Read Hugh Wolff's note on Brahms Symphony No. 1.

Like most of Tan’s music, the vividly colorful Concerto for Orchestra offers a revolutionary fusion of western and eastern idioms and creates what the composer himself styles his own personal vision of the “orchestra of the future.”

Written on commission for the 15th anniversary of Beijing Music, the Concerto is a gloss on Tan’s 1995 Grawemeyer Award-winning opera, Marco Polo. The Oscar-winning composer of the film score Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon worked with librettist Paul Griffiths in fashioning the opera, which followed the famed 13th Century Italian traveler on a “journey” that was at once spiritual/ psychological, physical/ geographical, and musical. The musical setting incorporated multiple languages, cultures and time periods, Eastern and Western operatic traditions, and varied musical styles to create a modern international genre.

In writing the Concerto for Orchestra, Tan evoked four landscapes from Marco Polo, each of which became a movement: Light of Timespace, Scent of Bazaar, The Raga of Desert, The Forbidden City. Although it doesn’t specifically hark back to Bartok’s famous example, the Concerto does present orchestral musicians with a virtuoso challenge and provides some soloistic or sectional spotlighting.

For the recording of this work, the composer wrote the following program note:

“An orchestra in a composer’s hands no longer remains a standard orchestra—it becomes the orchestra of that specific composer. The same instrumentation in the hands of Bartók or Stravinsky or Debussy becomes a completely different orchestra. I have always asked myself: what is my orchestra? What is the orchestra of the future? This piece, Concerto for Orchestra, is my answer. It evolved from a concerto of mine commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and was written with my opera Marco Polo in mind. Marco Polo took three different journeys: a geographical, musical and spiritual journey.

In the first movement, Light of Timespace, Marco Polo is making his spiritual journey through time and space. The brass and strings slide back and forth, much like the fading in and out of light or the dripping of ink on calligraphy paper. The sound stops, but the meaning of the notes still continues.

The second movement, Scent of Bazaar, opens to the aroma of Eastern markets with the trumpets and brass representing the spicy flavours and powerful perfumes.

With the third movement, The Raga of Desert, we hear Indian raga where every note is alive and has an infinite number of expressions. Here, I specifically focused on the blowing and bowing instruments and how they could sound like plucking instruments such as the sitar.

For the final movement, Marco Polo makes his arrival in the Forbidden City and I was trying to imagine what kind of light, colour and sound he saw and heard there. The Forbidden City also has a lot of meaning for me: it is not ‘forbidden,’ not an obstruction, but shows origin, change and mystery. Change is circular and we must always return.”

Date: September 25, 2013 - 8:00:PM
Price: Free
Location: NEC’s Jordan Hall

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