For centuries, composers have created music with a water theme: Handel’s “Water Music,’’ Wagner’s “Rheingold,’’ Debussy’s “La Mer,’’ “Smetana’s “Moldau,’’ and the “Sea Symphony’’ by Vaughan-Williams are awash in the harmony of ripples, currents, and tides. But nobody got wet during a performance. Tan Dun had another idea: Make water a sound in itself.
So Tan Dun, who composed the score for the 2000 Academy Award winning film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’’ created a “Water Concerto‘’ to explore the musical possibilities of the world’s most abundant liquid. The Florida Orchestra and soloist/percussionist John Shaw present their first performances of the 30-minute piece this weekend (April 25-27) in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater.
“Water is such an interesting medium to explore in a musical sense, and Tan Dun has done an amazing job orchestrating it into this very cool piece,’’ says Shaw. “I ‘play’ the water by splashing, tapping the surface with my hands, flicking it with my fingers, and making bubbles with bottles and cups. Sometimes it’s more improvisational, other times strictly rhythmic.’’
Composed in 1998, “Water Concerto’’ uses water as a pitch-bending medium, changing the tone and timbre of different instruments that are submerged in it - gongs, bells, tubes, and bowls. Shaw also will perform on an unusual instrument called a waterphone, a vase played with a large fiddle bow.
The concerto weaves a stream of “liquid sounds” with traditional orchestral instruments to create a surprisingly original tonal dimension. At the same time, specially prepared lighting reflected through the glass instruments lend visual excitement to the music. As the water sloshes and drips in transparent bowls, glasses and other containers, it reflects light around the concert hall.
Born in 1957 in the Hunan province of China, Tan Dun embraces both Eastern and Western musical traditions, spiritualism, and a flair for contemporary sounds and textures. The use of water, he has said, is a “metaphor for the unity of the internal and external, as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, recreation, and resurrection.’’ With the “Water Concerto,’’ he wanted to “present music that is listened to in a visual way and watched in an aural way. I want it to be intoxicating.”
Most everyone knows the instruments that make up an orchestra: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. They all appear in the “Water Concerto,’’ along with this most unusual list of amplified gadets:
♦ hemispherical, transparent water basins
♦ small bottle (for bubbling sounds)
♦ water phone
♦ water cup drums
♦ water gong
♦ water drums (glass salad bowls with floating objects inside)
♦ slinky phone
♦ long water tube with foam paddle
♦ water shaker
♦ set of agogo bells
♦ bass bow
♦ towel (for drying hands)
Unlike a traditional concerto, the instruments for Tan Dun’s creation must be ordered from the music’s publisher and specially wrapped and shipped a month in advance. It takes weeks for the soloist to prepare for the formal performance.
“Rehearsing the piece is challenging,’’ says Shaw, a 22-year veteran of the orchestra. “It requires some equipment that isn’t in my day-to-day arsenal. I also get soaking wet while practicing this piece, so my practice area at St. Petersburg College is covered with a tarp underneath my instrument setup. It’s truly unique compared to anything else I’ve ever played.’’
Shaw at least will stay dry when the orchestra performs two other works on the program, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll,” and the Second Symphony of Sibelius.
Performances are 8 p.m. today at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets are $15 to $45. For more information visit http://www.floridaorchestra.org/ or call (727) 892-3337.