The 2013 Honorees

By Allan Kozinn

She is the very model of a modern soloist, but more importantly, her work is part of a big step in the evolution of Western classical music. Thanks to her, the pipa is no longer an exotic curiosity, let alone a complete mystery.

Surely the best measure of Wu Man’s accomplishment is that for many concertgoers today, her  instrument—the pipa, a Chinese lute that dates back some 2,000 years—is no longer an exotic curiosity, let alone a complete mystery.

Symphony audiences have heard her perform concertos by Lou Harrison and Tan Dun, both of which she has recorded (the Harrison twice). New-music fans run into her regularly as a frequent collaborator with the Kronos Quartet, as a soloist at the annual Bang on a Can marathons, and as a member of chamber groups and orchestras giving the premieres of scores by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Chen Yi,  and Bright Sheng, who have written pipa parts into their works, with her sound and dexterity in mind. When Glass’s friends invited his favorite musicians to perform at an invitation-only concert at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge to celebrate the composer’s 75th birthday, in January 2012, Wu Man was among the players on the stage.

And, yes, she allows room for a measure of exoticism too: Since 1996, she has been a mainstay of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which explores both ancient and new music from the old trade routes connecting Asia and Europe, and she has lately undertaken forays into Asian classical and folk music, both as part of Carnegie Hall’s 2009 festival of Chinese music, which she helped curate, and for her own “Return to the East” recording and performance project.

There was a time when Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year would almost invariably have been a pianist, a violinist, a cellist, or possibly a flutist, oboist, or trumpeter. But the last century has seen players on instruments of all kinds—from Andrés Segovia and his guitar, to Evelyn Glennie and her vast array of percussion instruments—building careers by commissioning new works, reviving long-forgotten music, grafting other instruments’ repertories onto their own, and seducing audiences with their virtuosity.

In that regard, Wu (her family name; she has retained the traditional Chinese order) is the very model of a modern soloist, but more importantly, her work is part of a big step in the evolution of Western classical music. Yes, east is east and west is west, but not only have the twain met and embraced, Kipling’s famous refrain notwithstanding, but they have produced a vigorous musical hybrid that is enriching both cultures.

Westerners who cotton on to world music are finding, in fact, that the instruments of other cultures share considerable DNA—because of the Silk Road, perhaps—with familiar orchestral instruments. Most cultures have flutes of some kind, as well as drums and various string instruments, bowed and plucked. The pipa is a plucked, pear-shaped cousin to the lute—and, for that matter, to the Arabic oud, the Italian mandolin, the Greek bouzouki, the Russian balalaika, and the Indian sitar, to simply skim the surface. It has four strings and a fretted neck, and though in ancient times it was held horizontally and played with a plectrum, it is now held vertically and played with the fingers and nails, often using a flexible tremolo technique that, depending on the speed and intensity of the plucking, can evoke anything from a martial scene to a graceful love song.

Once you hear the pipa, you don’t mistake it for anything else: Its tone is rounded but with a slight twang, and players often bend its pitches to imitate the voice—specifically, the voice that speaks Chinese, an inflected language in which the melody of a word conveys nearly as much as its phonetics.

Wu was born in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, in 1965, and began studying the pipa when she was nine, after a neighbor heard her sing and told her parents that she should be given music lessons. Her father chose the pipa for her, for a simple, entirely extra-musical reason: He felt that a young lady holding a pipa looked elegant. That, at least, is the official story: A less cheerful version is that as a child of the Cultural Revolution, she would not have been allowed to study a Western instrument, like the violin or the piano, except in secret.

By the time she was 13, Wu had made her way through the gauntlet of local and national auditions that lead to the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing, which was just reopening after having been closed for a decade during the Cultural Revolution. With that terror ended, she was able to study the piano and Western harmony along with a starry roster of classmates that included the composers Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Guo Wenjing, and Bright Sheng. When the Boston Symphony visited China in 1979, Wu was among the spellbound listeners; and when Isaac Stern turned up to give master classes in 1980, she was a participant.

Mostly, though, she focused on the traditional pipa repertory, which included showpieces like Ambush From 10 Sides, a vigorous, painterly work that describes the epic battle that established the Han dynasty in 206 B.C., and is the instrument’s equivalent of, say, the Liszt Sonata: Every pipa virtuoso is expected to play it with the dramatic flair its subject demands. (It still occasionally figures in Wu’s repertory: I last
heard her play it at Zankel Hall, in 2006.)

When she completed her studies, Wu began a career as a soloist, adhering at first to the strict approach to the repertory expected of performers on traditional instruments. She soon chafed against that restriction, and noting that many of her classmates had gone abroad for further study, and in search of greater opportunities, Wu left too, in 1990. Settling in New Haven, she studied English, was accepted as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, at Harvard—and became so worried about her future that she considered giving up music and studying computers.

But that proved unnecessary. Through her former classmate, the composer Chen Yi, who was completing her doctorate at Columbia University, she was introduced to Susan Cheng, one of the founders of Music from China, a New York ensemble that specializes in Chinese music. She began performing with the group, and arranging solo concerts as well. One of those—a concert in Pittsburgh, in 1992—brought her to the attention of David Harrington, the first violinist of the Kronos Quartet, who invited her to work with Kronos on a handful of projects, including Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera. And in 1996, Yo-Yo Ma invited her to join his Silk Road Ensemble. He also performed with her at the White House, in 1999, at a state dinner for Zhu Rongji, China’s prime minister.

I first heard Wu Man at a Bang on a Can marathon in the mid-1990s, and was astounded by her sound, technique, and interpretive inventiveness. Since then, her appearances, on her own or with larger ensembles, have always been delightful surprises, as have her recordings, which suggest the expanse of her musical inquisitiveness.

For her 2003 CD Pipa—From a Distance (Naxos World), for example, she assembled an ensemble that included the composer and instrumentalist Stuart Dempster on didjeridu, trombone, plumbing pipes, and slide whistle; Abel sounds oddly like the Chinese erhu), banjos, and electronic samples, and DJ Tamara on turntables. The result was an album of improvisations and original compositions that draw on everything from traditional Chinese melodies to the influences of rock. On one track, “Hangzhou Blues”—named for her hometown—she plays an electric pipa, with a wah-wah pedal. Contrast that with her 2011 Borderlands (Smithsonian Folkways), for which she assembled a group of musicians from Central Asia for a focused, lively exploration of that region’s sounds and styles.

“Over the past 20 years of my musical life, I have been trying to seek out effective ways to introduce pipa music and Chinese musical culture to audiences in the West,” Wu wrote on her Web site. “Recently projects have taken me in a different direction, a direction that has pointed me back towards my homeland. Although Asian culture has always been at the root of my musical spirit, after living in the West for 20 years, when I now look back to China I feel that there are so many fascinating aspects of the musical culture that I need to learn about and also so many new possibilities for today’s music world.”

Given the musical gratification her journey has yielded so far, one can only await her new adventures with a sense of excitement and curiosity.

Allan Kozinn is a Culture reporter for the New York Times.


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