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Persuasive pipa player meets potent conductor

Oct 11, 2014

By Lawrence Toppman

People sometimes ask me why they ought to spend money to attend a classical concert, when they can enjoy music in a dozen other ways. Their answer came Friday at Belk Theater.

Soloist Wu Man played Pipa Concerto No. 2 by Chinese composer Zhao Jiping with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. The piece hasn't been recorded. It's not available on YouTube or Spotify. It won't be played again this year closer than Cincinnati, and it will probably never be played again here (except for today, of course).

So here's what you'd miss by not going: Tremendous virtuosity by Wu, whether strumming, plucking or hammering her lute-like instrument. A smooth blend of Chinese-style playing for the soloist humorous, plaintive, melancholic, turbulent and Western-style orchestration that recalls the vivid film scores Zhao wrote for Zhang Yimou in the 1990s ("Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern," etc.) Music that remains accessible and melodic yet stays touched with exoticism, because Zhao incorporated themes Wu heard in her hometown of Hangzhou.

Taiwanese-born conductor Mei-Ann Chen, who moved to America the same year as Wu Man (1989), drew a richly romantic sound from the orchestra. From an opening cello salvo by Alan Black to rumblings in the brass, Zhao often combined higher pipa notes with a dark underpinning. (This was the first pairing of a female conductor and soloist since 2003, when Susannah Malki joined pianist Lilya Zilberstein in Rachmaninov.)

The program began with Mozart's overture to "The Magic Flute" and ended with Schubert's Fourth Symphony. Chen conducted all of it with weight, precision and an intensity that sometimes became breathless. The overture looked forward to Beethoven; the Schubert had not an ounce of Viennese schmaltz on it. Even its dance movement, a minuet, thrust forward.

Chen and Wu showed their joint sense of humor in Zhao's concerto, which alternated passionate tumult with merriment. And Wu smiled her way through her phenomenally demanding solo encore, a traditional Chinese song that required nimble fingers and a wide dynamic range. You may never hear that again, either unless you're smart enough to go this weekend.

Article at Charlotte Observer