Pipa player Wu Man looks West
Wu Man, a Grammy-nominated pipa player from China, is as passionate about her instrument and music as she is about introducing them to Western audiences.
“I’ve been living in the US for almost 30 years,” said Wu, who received her training at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “I’d like to share Chinese music with the rest of the world.”
She has spared no effort in achieving her goal.
Wu took up the challenge of introducing the traditional Chinese musical instrument to the West when she came to the US in 1990, leaving her established fame behind and starting all over by first enrolling in English language classes.
She played her pipa at whatever venue that would give her a chance.
She was living in New Haven, CT when she first arrived. Over the weekends, she’d take the train to New York City to perform with other Chinese musicians.
Most Americans had never been exposed to pipa back then, said Wu. The beginning was bumpy, but she persisted, with an unwavering determination to keep at her traditional instrument and bring it to the world stage.
Her talent was “discovered” by an agent in New York, who, after some hesitation, decided to represent her.
She has since made history as a traditional Chinese instrumentalist on many fronts: the first to play with a Western symphony orchestra as a featured soloist, the first to play at the White House, and the first to receive Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, a prestigious award given for the first time to a player of a non-Western instrument.
She has succeeded in introducing her instrument to mainstream platforms by touring with various symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles in the US and Europe and giving numerous lectures at schools and music institutions.
In a 2017 radio program called PassagetotheMiddleKingdom that introduces various traditional Chinese musical instruments to listeners in North America, Wu presented the pipa as an instrument that “has many personalities.”
“I’m lucky,” Wu said. “I play an instrument that is beautiful, elegant, meditative and dramatic.”
Her skills in both playing the pipa and conveying emotion to her audiences are palpable.
At a recent concert with the China Performing Center for the Arts Orchestra (NCPA) at the Chicago Symphony Center, Wu played Lou Harrison’s PipaConcertowithString Orchestra to a sold-out audience. The piece was commissioned by Lincoln Center for Wu Man in 1997.
“Harrison was 80 when he composed it,” said Wu. “He’d fax me the pages he had written and asked me to play.”
Harrison told Wu that he had to use his own language to do the composition.
“Harrison opened another door for this instrument,” said Wu. “It has an Asian flavor, but it is obviously beautiful California, full of sunshine, just like Harrison himself.”
Wu said she had played it hundreds of times with Western orchestras in the US and Europe. But playing the piece with the NCPA Orchestra marked the first time she ever played it with a touring Chinese orchestra outside of China.
Wu said she felt overwhelmed with emotion.
“It’s wonderful to see a major Chinese symphony orchestra staging Chinese music and a traditional Chinese instrument on tour,” Wu said.
“We have so much in our culture to share with others,” Wu added. “This is quite a significant step for me.”
The audience responded with the same enthusiasm at the concert. Wu returned to the stage with an encore of WhiteSnowinSpring, a traditional piece that sounded familiar to many in the audience.
Wu said that she always gives her best at performances, no matter how large or small the venue, because she wants to have something meaningful to stay with the audience.
“Not only just, oh, that’s entertaining,” said Wu, “but have the audience walk away thinking, that’s beautiful. What does it say about China? Where is China?”
She wants the audience to continue asking questions, especially the young, to kindle their interest in another country and culture. “That’s so important today.”
Wu believes that the best time to spread Chinese music and culture is now. She says that the position of Chinese music is still weak when compared to African- or Latin-American music. There is still a lot to do to establish a stronger presence and position for Chinese music on the global stage.
In addition to performing in the West, Wu also wants to go back to China to share her experiences and teach young musicians to study and appreciate Chinese traditions.
“We need to present to the world the best of what we have,” Wu said. “Only when the young gain a deeper understanding of all the traditional pieces can they do better in sharing them with the rest of the world.”
Wu Man rehearses with NCPA Orchestra and conductor Lü Jia before performing at the Chicago Symphony Center. Wu Man (left) poses next to a poster at the Symphony Center before a recent performance.