HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: This place on the outskirts of Shanghai evokes strong memories for one of China's most famous composers.
(Sound of music from ‘Water Heavens’)
The boats that weave through the canals and under the bridges and the old houses that line the narrow streets remind Tan Dun of his childhood. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that on a visit to Shanghai, the area inspired the composer to produce a water themed concert called 'Water Heavens'.
TAN DUN, COMPOSER: In this time I was listening to Bach on my headphones, and listening to Bach over the temples chanting of the Buddhist. I was so moved actually, at the moment I suddenly realised actually, ‘this is the opera, this is the show, this is the concert, this is everything’.
(Footage from ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ of sword fighting in tree tops)
HUEY FERN TAY: Tan Dun is known to many people within the world of classical music.
Outside that sphere, he might not be as famous but his work is. His score for the movie 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' won him an Oscar and a Grammy.
(Footage of Tan Dun conducting an orchestra)
Tan Dun's journey is a tale of how a boy rose from the rice fields of rural China to command some of the world's most renowned orchestras. His relatively late introduction to classical music at the age of 20 was clearly not a barrier.
TAN DUN: You know to me, when I first heard Bach, it is like a medicine, it’s a spiritual medicine because it was just ... When the Cultural Revolution was just finished and every family was broken, many people died and many things including education, including schooling, including poetry, music, fine arts, everything stopped. Smashed!
HUEY FERN TAY: This production is experimental in both content and presentation. The infusion of East and West broadens the appeal of western classical music in a country that is just churning out students in this area.
(Footage of people people attending Water Heavens)
TAN DUN: Welcome to Water Heavens. Thank you very much for coming here.
HUEY FERN TAY: For this project, Tan Dun has moved outside the concert hall to an old house by Shanghai's Tudung River.
Everything about this musical performance is unorthodox. Water balls are percussion instruments, while Buddhist monks from the nearby temples chant.
In fact, unconventional combinations have become a signature of Tan Dun’s, a style that attracted the likes of New York's Metropolitan Opera.
TAN DUN: I used to listening to people doing everything in the river. And that sort of alive music becomes so important to me and especially as I growing up as a professional musician and that kind of organic score, organic sounding texture of sound, layers of sound, come back always.
(Footage of Water Heavens performance)
China may still be developing both as a source and a market for the sounds of Beethoven and Bach, but it’s an audience that can't be ignored. Music appreciation is being nurtured in many ways such as free public performances and exchange programs.
And as attendance figures decline in their home countries, world renowned orchestras like the Philadelphia Orchestra, now see China as the ticket to survival. But corporate sponsorship of this side of the arts is still in its infancy.
TAN DUN: Dedication of music to the organising of music or having a big sort of social event, charity things around, in the West it took 100 years, more than 100 years to build as today. But in China, it's just happened yesterday. So everything, although you thought maybe it’s too slow, but you have to know it's already the fastest in world history.
(Footage of Water Heavens performance)
HUEY FERN TAY: Purists may frown upon this unconventional presentation of classical music. Indeed, a show like this defies definition, but that is a selling point.
And there clearly is a demand.