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East Meets West: Wu Man and Chamber Orchestra

Chinese musician and ambassador of Chinese music performs at Butler

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Wu Man with pipa

Wu Man with pipa

A sovereign musician and an ambassador of Chinese music, Wu Man will make her Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra debut at Schrott Center for the Arts, on Saturday, Jan. 26. The East Meets West program features a concerto written especially for her instrument, the pipa—or Chinese lute—the pear-shaped, four-string instrument of which Wu is a celebrated master.

She will perform the Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, composed by Tan Dun, with the ICO.

 Tan Dun—acclaimed for his scores for the blockbuster martial arts films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero—combines the ethos of European chamber music with Chinese folk melodies and traditions in his compositions.

It’s a nexus achieved through Dun’s experience with the ritualistic “ghost opera’’ of his native Hunan, in which shaman performers channeled past spirits and invoked the future during Taoist funerals.

“We had a similar concept [of the ritual],” Wu told NUVO from her San Diego home. “People passed away and we had a formal ceremony to remember [them].”

Hailing from East China’s city of Hangzhou, Wu made her way to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at age 13, not long after universities in the country had re-opened at the end of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1976.

 The Cultural Revolution was an early imprint in the lives of both Dun and Wu.

When she entered the conservatory, she had hardly been playing the pipa for four years. Her parents, who appreciated the rich cultural heritage of the 2,000 year-old instrument—dating back to the Qin and Han dynasties—both prompted her to study the instrument, and found a teacher for her.

 In 1987, Wu became the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa. Following her move to the United States in 1990, she has made it her mission to familiarize the West with this once-enigmatic instrument from Central Asia.   

 The defining moment that launched Wu’s career was her involvement with the New York ensemble Music from China, with which she played in the early 1990s.

David Harrington, a founding member of the acclaimed crossover ensemble Kronos Quartet, attended one of those early performances and was motivated to invite the then-27-year-old musician to play with Kronos. Since then, Wu has collaborated with some of the most notable ensembles and composers of our time, including Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, The Knights, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and the late Lou Harrison.

 She was named Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year.

 A landmark recording that resulted from her collaboration with Kronos Quartet was Ghost Opera, Dun’s 1994 theatrical piece for solo pipa and string quartet, also playing makeshift percussion like a water bowl, rolls of paper, and stones.

The four-movement Concerto that will be performed at the Schrott Center is an arrangement for pipa and strings only, leaving out the percussion and theatrical elements of the older piece. Most of the solo parts are notated, but not the distinctive gestures of the pipa, expressed through bent notes, tremolo, and vibrato.

Wu, who has returned time and again to the Concerto over the last 18 years, finds freedom for expression in the solo parts, which she worked out with the composer during the composition of the original piece.  

The pipa’s technical practice has had an interesting evolution: “We have established the musical style for this instrument through 2,000 years,” Wu says. “The lyrical style, technically, is in the left-hand details—how we treat the notes with vibrato, or bending the notes. Musically it is slow and meditative. To me that lyrical style is much deeper.”

On the other hand, the contrasting martial style “is dramatic and percussive, more like a flamenco guitar—more right-hand technique, strumming and tremolo.” Contemporary composers usually combine those two styles into one piece, as is the case with the concerto, roughly 20 minutes long.  

The heart of the piece is the popular northern folk song "Little Cabbage," which is evoked and returns throughout the piece. “A lot of people know it,” Wu says. “I knew that song and grew up with it as well.”

Against a quiet incantation of "Little Cabbage" by the wispy pipa, the strings recall Bach’s Prelude in c-sharp minor, originally for keyboard. Both themes are juxtaposed and interwoven, especially in the serenity of the third movement, resulting in a pristine meeting of East and West. This is followed by the throbs and stomps of the finale—accentuated by shouts and squeals from the instrumentalists—before a final summoning of "Little Cabbage" reinstates the peace and quiet of the half-forgotten ritual that it evokes.

Now that Wu, a veritable spokesperson for Eastern culture, has all but accomplished her undertaking to bridge East and West through music, she looks to the future of the pipa in the hands of newcomers.

“I’m more interested in wanting to share my experience with a younger generation, and let them understand a different culture with different music,” she says.

Wu still travels to her home country, where she is a visiting professor of three major conservatories, to teach master classes and lead workshops.

But new projects, collaborations, and performances are not in short supply: her most recent release is Fingertip Carnival, a collaboration with the group Son de San Diego, which plays traditional Son jarocho music from Mexico. In March, Wu joins Yo-Yo Ma again in New York for the U.S. premiere, by the New York Philharmonic, of Zhao Lin’s A Happy Excursion, a double concerto for pipa and cello.