MusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Tashi Lhunpo Monks of Tibet – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Once again Opera North has successfully staged an evening outside our Western experience. In truth, seldom has a review been approached in such ignorance, though it must be said that the introductions to each item by a representative of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust were excellent and a great aid to understanding.

The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is traditionally the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only in importance to the Dalai Lama. It has suffered mightily under Communist Chinese rule. Having reached a total of 5,000 monks in 1959, the monastery was forced to close and has re-established itself slowly in Southern India, with 400 monks the present number. Meanwhile the Panchen Lama was imprisoned for ten years for his outspoken comments on Communist China and, having been released, died in 1989. The little boy who was the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was identified in 1995 and then, with his whole family, disappeared as one of the youngest political prisoners – and is, no doubt, still a prisoner.

So the evening with the monks of Tashi Lhunpo was not an exercise in quaintness, but an attempt to spread the culture of Tibet, to bring Tashi Lhunpo to the attention of the Western world and to re-create the sacred chants and masked dances for an audience who, judging by the initial unwillingness to applaud, appreciated the devotional aspects of the evening. At one point four monks went into a silent prayer, no doubt much shorter than usual, but even so it was further proof that we were invited to share the authentic practices of the Tibetan monk. We even witnessed a vehement debate on the nature of compassion without understanding a word, but the grins that appeared on the monks’ faces showed their enjoyment of this key element of Buddhist monastic life.

The stage was set up with an altar and assorted musical instruments, notably two long horns. Two monks entered and produced sounds of astonishing depth and power from the horns – it was easy to imagine them echoing around the Himalayas! Then the other monks entered behind two smaller horns and placed images of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama on the altar.

The theme of the evening was “The Power of Compassion”, revealed through prayer, dance, chant and song. Much of the song was the Tibetan equivalent of plainchant, delivered between outbursts from long horns and tambourines or, most effectively, through a thrilling mix of two (smaller) horns, bass drum, tambourine and assorted bells and percussion, while two monks intoned prayers that emerged in the gaps in instrumental music. Now and again, as in the cemetery scene, what we would consider a song emerged from the surrounding chant.

But it was the dance that proved most riveting, with gloriously elaborate costumes and vivid accompaniments. Frequently accompanied by virtuoso performances on cymbals/bass drum and long horns, the dances usually began in stately fashion, even a touch clumsy, before whipping up a frenzied finish, as in the Deer and Buffalo Dance and the Black Hat Dance.

The rumbling vocals, the way the long horns rounded off a dance with what to Western ears is a very rude noise, the intense prayers of dedication at the end of the evening – these were among the delights, but this reviewer is well aware that he only part-shared the religious experience.

Reviewed on 3rd June 2023.

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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