Pipa player Wu Man looks West

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICA - By JIAN PING in Chicago For China Daily

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.

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