In any musical style, Wu Man finds something new to say



“It was exactly the same train,” Wu said in fluent, accented English. “Before, it was $ 11. Now it’s $ 22.

The price isn’t the only thing that has changed in the years since. At the time, Wu was a recent immigrant who had given up on what would have been a successful career, determined to succeed in a country where she knew almost no one and spoke the language. Today, she is the world’s most famous performer of the pipa, a Chinese zither whose dry and scathing sound immediately seems to evoke Chinese musical tradition.

She has a wide range of collaborators, including the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma. With Shanghai, she has organized a Chinese music program ranging from traditional songs to a suite of music by Zhao Jiping, who composed the films “Raise the Red Lantern ”and“ Farewell, My Concubine ”, and who is known, Wu said, as“ the John Williams of China ”. She seems to be a musician who is able to create common ground with almost anyone.

Reaching this point has not been an easy process, she said. But “I think in a way, if you have that goal in you, you can achieve it somehow if you keep working.”

Wu’s instrument had been chosen for her by her parents; most families in the eastern city of Hangzhou neither knew nor could afford western instruments. Many folk songs could be taught and performed at home, but not in public. Government-approved patriotic pieces were the norm even for the local symphony orchestra.

His first significant exposure to Western classical music was in 1979, when Seiji Ozawa took the Boston Symphony Orchestra to China on tour. A concert was televised, and since only one family in their apartment building had a television, everyone gathered around the small black and white screen to see and hear Bostonians play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As important to the Wu teenager as the music, if not more, was seeing these Western cultural ambassadors led by an Asian.

“Wow, he’s a Japanese, and he’s conducting an American symphony,” she remembers thinking. “It gave me all these questions, like what is America?” What are the musicians doing, and who is this Asian who can conduct an American orchestra?

Wu was then admitted to the prestigious Beijing Central Conservatory, a great honor for her family and the start of a secure and pre-established career. But it all seemed too confined. So she went to New Haven, where she had friends and family, started learning English, and went to Chinatown to play with an ensemble called Music From China, in part just to keep her talents as a musician. fingering.

It broke up in 1992, when the Kronos Quartet was looking for collaborators for an Asian music project. David Harrington, the group’s violinist, was in the apartment of composers Zhou Long and Chen Yi, both of whom had known Wu at the Central Conservatory. They played him a video of one of his pipa performances.

The next day she got what she called “that very interesting phone call” from Harrington saying he heard her play and that he was hoping they could work together. Wu, who was still learning English, couldn’t understand everything he said, but still said yes. Later, she called Zhou and Chen and said, “’Quartet Kronos, who is this? They were shocked. “

The group eventually asked Zhou to write “Soul”, the very first piece for pipa and string quartet, and perform it at a music festival in Pittsburgh. Wu was petrified before the concert. “It was the first time in my life that I had worked with western musicians, western instruments – everything was a first.” Subsequently, however, she saw and heard the audience’s standing ovation: “Suddenly, something opened up in me.

Likewise, she has vivid memories of the first performances with the Ma Silk Road intercultural ensemble in 2000. The musicians came from so many countries – India, Iran and Azerbaijan among them. – and spoke so many languages ​​that they needed more interpreters just to start playing together. “It was a very slow process,” Wu recalls.

“And a few days later the translators were getting quieter and quieter – we didn’t need them,” she continued. “It’s music [that] talks about everything. It’s the kind of experience that stays with me.

Shanghai Quartet and Wu Man
: “A night in old and new China”

At the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall Auditorium, Wellesley College, Sunday at 3 p.m. Free entry, reservation required.

David Weininger can be contacted at

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