SYMPHONY 1997 by Tan Dun Yo-yo Ma, cello; Cultural Centre Concert Hall Above anything else, Tan Dun is one of the most audacious composers of our time. His 1997 Symphony could have been a collection of nationalistic cliches. Instead, he has put together a work which transcends his overwhelming forces, gathers together seven or eight styles, two or three centuries (divided by a millennium or two), along with musical quotes from Richard Strauss, Beethoven and Puccini's quote from China. It runs over 70 minutes, but is almost of heavenly length. The name 'symphony' is arbitrary, of course. This is a combination of cello concerto, oratorio, Chinese opera, movie music and exotic colour. Yes, Tan Dun includes a complex series of programme notes, and some extra-musical information about war, peace, nature and friendship. But unlike his opera Marco Polo, which was crippled by a static, over-literary libretto, Symphony 1997 has the musical inspiration to rise above verbal games. The tapestry is vast. More than non-stop cello-playing by Yo-yo Ma, not only a huge children's choir, not only the full Asian Youth Orchestra with a massive battery of percussion. The centrepiece is a reproduction of 2,400-year-old bells - 64 of them - found near Wuhan, painted with aurally glittering colours. This, in fact, is Tan Dun's strength. Structurally, the work never quite holds together (unless you know the symbolic references); individual moments are memorable. The use of the bells is typical. Whether with cello descant, drums or the crescendo of the whole orchestra, these bells could have a feather-light whisking or could literally boom out at the audience. Their poetic use was symbolic, but the music always dominant. The cello is equally inventive, alternating from classical cello to what seemed to be Chinese folk songs. But as he did in Marco Polo, Tan Dun can give the instrument wildly different styles. At times, Ma played the cello like an erhu, at times like a Mongolian fiddle. Played against the tape of a Temples Street opera or playing hard against the whole cello ensemble, the colour was always interesting. Far more interesting, in fact, than dreary, over-long second-movement cadenza. Yet these effects, like the great Tibetan-style brass, the children's choir and the dancing finale were always surprising. Were Tan Dun less celebrated, some publishers would probably eliminate some of the 'filler' or make that finale chorale less extrinsically emotional, more enigmatic. But Tan Dun has the guts and power (and extraordinarily choreographic conducting movements) to make it all come alive. Which means that even those who are repelled by patriotic music can find a unique colour, imagination, and Mahleresque sense of surprise in this most uncommon work.