Armstrong Auditorium concertgoers accompanied pipa virtuoso Wu Man and the Shanghai String Quartet on an exploration of Chinese music on January 12. The two-hour program for 360 concertgoers, “A Night in Ancient and New China,” blended the voices of an innovative string quartet and the ancient, lute-like pipa.
Wu Man, known as a leading ambassador of Chinese music, opened with two traditional pieces she had learned from the prestigious Pudong School of pipa playing. The second of this set, the “Song of Kazakhstan,” had a rambunctious Persian style, fitting since the pipa originated in Persia before it was brought to China via the Silk Road 2,000 year ago. Wu explained that the pipa has relatives all around the world, like the sitar, the dombra and even the banjo. The pipa is like a lute with only four strings that is plucked, rather than strummed.
Next, the quartet’s two violinists, one violist and one cellist joined in for a Chinese folk song suite. The five delicately depicted a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly in the first number. They swayed with the beat of the second number, the “Dance of the Yao People,” dropping to near silence several times before springing back up in mighty dynamic contrast.
A screen showing a tour of a serene Beijing courtyard served as the backdrop for the next number, an adaptation of Chinese composer Zhao Jiping’s film score from Raise the Red Lantern. The calm music matched the slow camera movement throughout the featured courtyard.
After a 20-minute intermission, the Shanghai Quartet played the “Silent Temple Quartet No. 4,” a piece commissioned specifically for the group. The piece represented a Buddhist temple during the 1960s and 1970s Cultural Revolution, when religious activities were forbidden. Armstrong International Cultural Foundation concert manager Ryan Malone said he was particularly amused by the quirky plucking section intended to imitate chanting monks.
The finale, Tan Dun’s “Concerto for Pipa and String Quartet,” was also composed for the performers. Violinist Weigang Li told the audience that Tan Dun, composer of the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was the “John Williams of China,” referring to the American composer of popular soundtracks including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and others. Wu Man described the final piece as having “spice” and also mentioned that Tan Dun reflected more ritualistic and Buddhist styles in his music, which meant the performers would have “more fun” chanting throughout. A loud, unified stomp began the frenetic concerto, and the performers retained the audience’s attention by slapping their instruments, droning with their strings, and occasionally yelping. At one point, the first violinist stood up for what seemed to be a tuning session with the other instrumentalists. There was a short repose from the eccentricities during the peaceful third movement, but the group then accelerated into the fourth movement’s heart-pounding climax, gradually fading out until there was silence for the second before the audience applauded.
Wu Man has played the pipa for nearly 40 years. At 13 years of age, she entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she later received the first master’s degree in pipa playing. In 2013, she was awarded the title “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America; she was the first performer of a non-Western instrument to win. The five-time Grammy nominee is also the first performer from China to play at the White House. Currently, she works with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the Silk Road Project, a foundation that aims to unify different cultures through the arts and education in the way that the original Silk Road trade route connected different Asian peoples through the exchange of goods and ideas. Wu performs in the Silk Road Ensemble, sharing traditional Chinese music on the pipa with people throughout the U.S., Asia and Europe.
The Shanghai String Quartet was founded in 1983 by brothers Hongang and Weigang Li at the Shanghai Conservatory. It was the first Chinese quartet to win a major international chamber music competition. Its most popular album is Chinasong, which is composed of traditional folk songs. The quartet has ventured into many other different styles of music—seven of their 34 recorded albums contain Beethoven’s string quartets. The group has also dabbled in Hollywood productions.
The Armstrong International Cultural Foundation performing arts series continues on January 30-31, when the Russian National Ballet Theatre performs Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote.