At most concerts, audiences are warned to turn off their mobile phones. But when the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra opens its 2017 season and celebrates Chinese New Year, the ubiquitous device will play a significant role.

Popular classics, Manuel de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance and Stravinsky's The Firebird share the programme with two exotic scores by Tan Dun. The Chinese composer and conductor, making his fifth visit to New Zealand since 1988, is best known for the music from the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

He is also an avowed fan of our country.

"I've been influenced so much by the beauty of New Zealand," he enthuses. "Coming here is like going home. New Zealand is not only my hero but a model for the rest of the world with all its beautiful nature."


On Tuesday, his very recent Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, first performed 18 months ago by the National Youth Orchestra of the US, seeks "to create and share the wonder of nature and a dream of the future".

For Tan, it all starts with the sound of ancient Chinese instruments, imitating the sounds of nature and, more specifically, of the birds. These sounds will not come from the APO or a recorded soundtrack. Instead, audience members play apps loaded on to mobile phones, creating what Tan describes as his poetic forest of digital birds.

The irony of it was not lost on New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini who, reviewing the work's 2015 premiere, impressed that "when mobile phones are the bane of concert life, Mr Tan turns these devices into essential instruments".

Speaking from a Shanghai luncheon, the composer highlights the baroque connection, a passacaglia being a form popular with Bach in which a sequence of bars is repeated over and over again with constant variation.

"The passacaglia is a very interesting musical technique," Tan says. "The essential repetition and musical patterning that is so much a feature of baroque music can also be heard in the minimalist music of today, and in this work I have really enjoyed combining it with the 21st century technology of the cellphone."

On Tan's last visit to Auckland, in 2014, he conducted his Martial Arts Trilogy which consisted of three concertos, derived from three of his film scores. The movies were projected behind the orchestra, including the 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which he carried off an Academy Award and a Grammy.

Tuesday's concerto from Farewell my Concubine does not incorporate any film screening but traces the narrative of the 1993 movie that won an Academy Award for best foreign film and a Palme d'Or at Cannes, sharing that prize with Jane Campion's The Piano.

"It's a very conceptual piece," Tan says. "I've caught the drama between the king and his concubine by using the king of Western instruments, the piano, played by Ralph van Raat, against a Peking Opera soprano, Xiao Di.

"They're both part of my world. As a young man, I played in and conducted traditional Peking Opera and, as a musician, my first instrument has always been the piano. Bringing them together gave me enormous opportunities to create something unique."

What we'll experience from Xiao Di is far from the repertoire and style that a European soprano might deliver.

"She has to combine singing, acting and martial arts performance," Tan laughs. "It's a little like presenting Wagner's Ring with crouching tigers and not so hidden dragons."

Yet, strangely enough, although it may seem that Tan is working towards a blend of East and West in his music, he stresses this is not his ultimate goal.

"The important thing is the composer and his signature," he says. "You need to put your music out there; not just talking to your family, or your village, but to orchestras, radio, television and the world. That takes real courage."