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The apostle of the pipa brings world of music to Charlotte

Oct 3, 2014

Some revolutions begin with wars. Hers started with love.

Wu Man, who comes to Charlotte this week for four concerts, has done for the pipa what Andres Segovia and Ravi Shankar did for the guitar and sitar: taken the instrument beyond her native land, inspired or commissioned composers and collaborated with great artists from many cultures.

She foresaw none of this while auditioning for the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at 13. But by breaking a tradition, she broke the ice in which the pipa had been locked.

"A composer had written a piece in the early 1960s about love and dance," she explains. "During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), you could not have those concepts in movies, novels, music or anywhere. When I took the entrance exam, I played this piece. All the professors were amazed.

"A week later the central TV station invited me to play it on TV. That showed (China) not only that we had talented kids but sent the message, 'Now we can talk about love. We can play this music publicly.' The following year, all the students who wanted to get into the school played this piece. Later on, I understood this was my life change: For Chinese traditional music to come back."

Well, one of many life changes. She plays traditional music on "Elegant Pipa Classics," a recent CD on the Wind label. She solos with the Chicago Symphony in a pipa concerto by American composer Lou Harrison on "Sounds of Silk Road Chicago." She joins Cuban percussionist Luis Conte and slack-key Hawaiian guitarist Daniel Ho on her album "Our World in Song" and has abetted the Kronos Quartet for decades.

Maybe her versatility comes from the pipa's chimerical nature. "Chinese lute" doesn't do it full justice.

"People say that because it's an ancient plucked instrument," notes Wu, 51. "When I'm asked what it sounds like, I say 'Somewhere between guitar, harp, ukulele, banjo and mandolin.' It's a combination of all those colors.

"Bluegrass works on it, even a kind of slow blues. I'm looking at all the possibilities that remove boundaries."

Wu also plays liu qin, the small mandolin she picked up at 9 because her hands couldn't cope with the pipa. (She took that up at 11.) And she plays ruan, a big-bodied instrument more like a plucked viola. But she's bringing only a pipa this trip.

She'll play it Tuesday at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art at noon and 6 p.m., performing alone and with the Honors Quartet from UNC School of the Arts. That program includes a work by Zhao Jiping, who wrote the full-scale pipa concerto she'll play with the Charlotte Symphony Friday and Saturday at the Belk Theater. She premiered it last October in Australia.

"It's a melodic piece," she says. "Zhao has written many film scores, so he knows how to write for Western-style strings. The style of this concerto is like music from my home town (Hangzhou). The pipa was the main instrument in folk music (there), and he chose material I grew up with. It's fully written out, but I get to decide whether to use vibrato or slide, to make a note shorter or longer."

Wu, who moved to America in her 20s and lives in San Diego, grew up in the pipa's heyday in China.

"I feel a little concerned about the future, because excuse my language it's a damned difficult instrument," she says. "You need a lot of time to sit down and play it (well), and I worry that fewer kids have the patience to do that and leave their other distractions.

"But I am sure some of the younger generation will start. I opened the door to new pieces, and people will come through it wanting more."

Article at Charlotte Observer