The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Wu Man talks about the Chinese pipa, which she will play with the prize-winning and critically acclaimed The Knights chamber orchestra for the Wisconsin Union Theater this coming Saturday night. | February 4, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Amid so much local competition, the veteran and venerable Wisconsin Union Theater is trying to adapt to the times and the public’s desires.  One strategy, used by music presenters nationwide, that it is pursuing is to widen the audience appeal to younger people, especially University of Wisconsin students, by broadening the definition of classical music and to blend in world music, which attracts big audiences. (It is also deliberately keeping prices down.)

So what could be more classical and yet, at the same time, more exotic and novel than the ancient Chinese instrument, the pipa (below).


It has been undergoing a revival in the West, largely thanks to the prize-winning and critically acclaimed virtuoso Wu Man (below). She has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. At the bottom, you can hear a YouTube video of a Tiny Desk Concert she performed at the studios of NPR.

Wu Man  horizontal

You can hear the results for yourself this Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall (the hall the Wisconsin Union Theater is using while it undergoes renovation).

Wu Man will perform as soloist with the highly acclaimed and prize-winning chamber orchestra from Brooklyn, New York, The Knights (below). The group of young New York musicians, praised for its revelatory and energetic readings of Ives, Copland, Mozart and Schubert and others, has also just released an all-Beethoven CD, with the Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 5, on Sony Classics.

Here is a link to the group’s website:

the knights 1

The program, which the same players will perform this Thursday night in Manhattan, includes some more traditional classics from the Western classical music canon. They include the Neo-classical “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto  by Igor Stravinsky (below, in a photo by Richard Avedon).

igor stravinsky portrait

Then two early 20th-century French works will be performed: the sensuous “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below top) and the jazzy score for “The Ox on the Roof” by Darius Milhaud (below bottom).

claude debussy 2

darius milhaud

Wu Man will solo in the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra and Pipa by 20th-century American composer Lou Harrison (below) and Wu Man’s own composition “Blue and Green.”

Lou Harrison

Tickets run $10 for UW students to $25, with parking available for an extra fee.

Here is a link to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s website about the concert with ticket information, reviews, links to related sites and even a video clip:

Wu Man recently granted an email Q&A to The Ear:

Wu Man 1

What is the pipa and how would you describe its sound and explain the way one plays it?

The pipa is a lute-like (four-stringed) instrument with a 2,000 year-old history. It sounds almost like a combination of guitar, banjo, mandolin, lute and ud, etc. It is plucked with the right hand’s five fingers, and has a rich sound quality and is capable of many different music styles.

In what way is the pipa a “classical” instrument in Asia? Why is it important for Westerners to become acquainted with it?

The pipa was introduced to China 2,000 years ago from Central Asia. The Chinese took thousands of years to make this Central Asian ‘lute.’ It is a part of the world string plucking instrument family. If you like learning about the music and culture from the east part of the globe, then the pipa is the one of the main traditional musical instruments you can study.

To me it really doesn’t matter if you are Westerners or Easterners, we are all living on the same globe. It is important to know each other’s culture. Just like the pipa –- music came from the same roots, and is traveling to other places. If you isolate yourself in your own zone, that would be a pity because you are missing so many wonderful things on the other part of the earth. And perhaps you will be OUT of today’s modern society soon.

Wu Man vertical

How successfully does it blend with Western style classical music?

As I mentioned, music is the human being’s natural language and it can blend in many ways. I am still looking for the different possibilities. So far the pipa has worked perfectly with western chamber ensembles, orchestras, and of course other members of plucked string family as well. Actually the pipa could blend with any musical style and art form such as jazz, electronic, theater, dance, multi-media…on and on…

What has been the reaction of American and European audiences to you and the pipa?

The audiences are always enthusiastic about my music and fascinated about the pipa’s unique style. I have been touring with a variety of projects — solo recitals and as well as chamber ensembles, string quartets, pipa concerto with orchestras, and theater performances. I have collaborated with dancers, singers, and visual artists.

I would like to bring the pipa to different musical genres, to explore the possibilities of this ancient Chinese instrument. And I want to see in the future that the pipa will be available to the world and become a member of the 21st-century musical family.

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