By Thomas May
In 2013 Tan Dun traveled to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to conduct his Water Passion in the very space where J.S. Bach had introduced the Saint Matthew Passion nearly three centuries ago (most likely in 1727). The gesture underlined the kind of cross-cultural counterpoint that lies at the heart of the Chinese composer’s oratorio. The full title reads Water Passion after Saint Matthew, yet Tan also models his work on his reading of Bach’s monumental precedent; it might even be titled Water Passion after Saint Matthew after Bach—the second “after” being taken simultaneously in its dual senses of “according to” and “post-dating” (for a contemporary world).