Tan Dun conjures the ancient wolf in this double bass concerto

Tan Dun imagines the wolf is the “mirror of human being”. We once shared grass and sky with this ancient creature, the composer says – but today that mirror is shattered, and we couldn’t be further from the spiritual lives of our ancestors.

“We are short of the grassland, we are short of the forest, and everything is missed,” Tan laments in an interview. It’s through his 2014 composition Wolf Totem that we may come closer to the voices of our distant past.

He connects with these voices through the “future voice of human being, which is the orchestra”. And the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra presents Tan’s double bass concerto Wolf Totem as part of its 6PM Series launch in nipaluna/Hobart.

This three-movement work was a joint commission from the TSO with Taiwan Philharmonic, St. Louis Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. TSO Principal Double Bass Stuart Thomson returns to play the solo part, having played its Australian premiere and performed it in China to more than 10,000 people.

Playing Wolf Totem for 10,000 people

Stuart made his first trip to China with Wolf Totem in 2016-17, when conductor Marko Letonja led the TSO through cities including Nanjing, Xiamen, and Shanghai. Fast-forward to 2019, and Stuart would meet the composer himself – performing the concerto under Tan’s baton.

“He is a very nice man; I really enjoyed the chance to work him. He is a bit of a rockstar in China – very well-connected, a real mover and shaker!” Stuart recalls.

The Tasmanian-based musician faced some challenges when it came to interpreting this brand-new concerto. When he first started rehearsing, no recordings were available to him. So Stuart did his research: he read the book Wolf Totem by Jian Rong, which inspired the composition. He listened to countless recordings of the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese instrument that’s more than a thousand years old.

Tan calls for the double bass to mimic the expression of the erhu and traditional Mongolian Horse Fiddle styles.

“It turned out the double bass has a lot of erhu qualities at the top of the range of the instrument that I really like exploring,” Stuart says.

This combination of Western and Eastern music is a common thread among Tan’s compositions. It’s a style he has perfected to the level of winning Academy, BAFTA, and Grammy awards for his work.

Exploring history and legend

Tan’s music often delves into historical and spiritual themes. For his epic 2018 oratorio Buddha Passion, the composer travelled to the Silk Road and researched murals and carvings in the Mogao Caves – some as old as 366AD. He shared the story of Qin Shi Huang in his 2006 opera The First Emperor, and composed an Academy Award-winning score for Ang Lee’s 2000 historical fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Tan’s Wolf Totem explores the cultural and spiritual story of the Mongols and the extinction of the Mongolian wolf. You can hear these tales in the music and, according to Stuart, these programmatic features make it “such an accessible concerto to listen to”.

“You hear running horses throughout the fast section of the first movement, particularly at the end with horses running away. It’s a ricochet effect with the bow on the solo bass.”

Pizzicato (the plucking of stringed instruments) is used in the second movement to depict wolf cubs, Stuart says, while the main opening theme recalls a “Mongolian folk tune that is really well known in China”.

“I love playing the piece. It has plenty of challenges, and requires me to discover many different colours on the bass across the entire range of the instrument.”

Double bass takes centre-stage

Beyond the story that underpins Wolf Totem, it’s also a significant feat to perform a double bass concerto and compete with the dynamics of the orchestra, managing the balance between higher and lower frequencies.

“There are parts of the work that are quite heavily scored, and the soloist has to dig deep to project the sound. As a result, the accompaniment has to be quieter than usual.”

To accommodate, the TSO uses “unobtrusive” amplification known as ambient miking. It gives Stuart a boost when he needs it, but with the microphones placed at such a distance that it doesn’t distract the soloist with an extra source of sound.

It may be the first time some listeners have heard the double bass in a solo capacity. Stuart hopes Wolf Totem might “change how they listen in the future – from the bottom up!”

“Lyrical passages are fantastic on the bass. It can have the most beautiful singing tone.”

Also on this 6PM Series program will be works by Grieg and Australian composer Holly Harrison. The concert is designed to be easy and relaxed for the after-work crowd (and “early enough for kids to come along”).

“Live music is good for the soul and sparks great joy. In today’s uncertain world, live music offers a short but welcome distraction from devices, computers, politics and wars!”

BOOK NOW: Experience Tan Dun’s ‘Wolf Totem’ in our 6PM Series. Stuart Thomson will perform under the baton of Eivind Aadland at 6pm March 16 in the Federation Concert Hall, nipaluna/Hobart.