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Two Four-Stringed Instruments: So Very Different


“String of Soul,” not just another formulaic “East Meets West” exercise, rather immersed us in a sonic journey as it combined the warm assertiveness of Hsin-Yun Huang’s viola with the otherworldly and timeless sonorities of Wu Man’s pipa. In Saturday night’s Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concert at Jordan Hall we witnessed composer Lei Liang’s assemblage of modern takes (including his own) on traditional songs, variously adapted for the two instruments singly, duetting, and together with a string quartet. Even with titles such as Big Wave Washes on the Sand and A Moonlit Night on the River, the affect never remained vaporous, despite moments when we drifted with the wafting cherry blossoms, in large measure because of the program unfolded with such variety.

Hora Lunga, from Ligeti’s microtonal Sonata for Viola, flavored the atmosphere with ancient seeming modes (was it Lydian + Myxolydian as someone penciled into the score?), while Kenji Bunch’s The Three Gs riffed on “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in scordatura. Huang’s resourcefulness and communicative stage presence befit a co-founder of the Silk Road Project. Bostonians may also remember her stint in the Borromeo Quartet.

Wu Man’s four-stringed and many-fretted pipa, with its very own language of strumming, plucking, rapid repetition of single notes (or tremulating), and bluesy pitch bending, spoke to exotic places of poetic repose as well as episodes of tremulous excitement. We witnessed staggering mastery on an instrument with a 2,000-year history from an artist equally at home in the White House with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project or the Central Conservatory.

Considering my inadequacy to the task of interpreting this unusual show to readers, I have asked the two artists to write something about one another’s playing.  -FLE

According to Huang handout essay, “As musicians of Chinese origins, the three of us (including composer/assembler Lei Liang) have come from contrasting musical roots. Yet what brought us together to create is the same desire of wanting to connect, rediscover and learn. Folk elements will always be the most powerful material because it is a reflection of the people, of artistic meanings that evolved organically across time and space in all cultures.

This program brings music and sounds as early as the 13th century from Mongolia to 21st-century music from Ligeti. We hope to create a listening experience that will be rich, surprising, inspiring and full of beauty. By connecting the unlikely combination of two beautiful string instruments, it is about imagine the unimaginable.

“String of Soul” combines pipa and viola in a rare pairing, with a focused exploration of original material that has inspired composers from multiple cultures. Virtuoso pipa player Wu Man will showcase the enormous range of this plucked Chinese instrument; through the prism of her artistry, we are transported to an expansive landscape with extraordinary nuance. The viola has normally acted as a unifying bridge in the chamber and orchestral settings of Western music; however, here I explore its capacity to stand by itself, as well as having a dialogue with the pipa.

Chung Cheng photo

In addition to showcasing the wonderful pipa traditional repertoire and Wu Man’s own works, including Kui-Song of Kazakh and Leaves Flying in Autumn, we discover deep emotional connections with Chinese composers like Wang Huiran 王惠然, Chou Wen Chung 周文中 (born in the 1930s), Bright Sheng 盛宗亮 and Guo Wenjing 郭文景 (born in the 1950s), then Lei Liang 梁雷 (1970s. Through decades apart, their music shares a common core. We were honored when Lei Liang agreed to write a duo for us. While our artistic journeys have taken us in different directions, we both started by leaving home at a young age and we have in common a sense of nostalgia and yearning for our cultural roots. The Mongolian Song expresses this indescribable and poignant emotion via a mother’s voice: her daughter is marrying off, and the mother and daughter will never meet again.

The other compositions on the program similarly draw on their respective cultural roots — Turkish composer Adnan Saygun, Hungarian composer György Ligeti, British violist/composer Garth Knox and American violist/composer Kenji Bunch each contribute non-negotiable voices to enrich this listening experience.

A tune from an unknown composer sets “Moonlit Night by the River in Spring,” the oldest poem on the program, and one of the greatest in the history of Chinese poetries. Zhang Ruoxu (張若虚) lived during the Tang Dynasty (660AD) and published only two poems. In its 36 stanzas, the poet converses with the universe, finding a way to expand the reader’s relationship with time and space. The poem has an incredible symmetry as it evokes the cyclical rise and fall of life. It is Buddhism in its very finest essence. Here the bicultural composer Sofia Jen Ouyang refracts a traditional text through her own lens.

And to my request, Huang added: Though I am a musician thoroughly immersed in the Western canon, something in my ancient DNA welcome me home via this inspiring partnership with Wu Man. I stand almost in awe of what she does. The art of listening to the moment and creating with spontaneity is the ultimate goal of all performing artists. Wu Man as an artist draws people in immediately with her extraordinary ability to lose herself and allowing the music to occupy center stage. When we collaborate together, I found new liberty in allowing timing to be a fluid element as performing space demands subtle differences.  We had fun experimenting with arrangements up to a few minutes before the performance, just staying listening with fresh ears. When one thinks of Mozart’s Rondo ala Turca, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances or Bach’s Quodlibet from the Goldberg Variations, those are just a small number of vast examples where Western composers pull from the most immediate joyful folk inspirations. Our collaboration has allowed me to come back to interpreting traditional classical style with so much more freedom and possibilities. 

And Wu Man pays tribute to her partner:

This is a creative and adventurous pipa and viola duet concert.  Historically, the Chinese pipa and western viola have not had the opportunity to dialogue directly. The cultural tradition, musical language and sound color of the two instruments are full of characteristics. Hsin-Yun and I have accumulated a lot of experience in our respective fields, whether it is performance or teaching. This time we joined together to bring a unique musical journey for audience. The concert spans time, space and culture from Gyorgy Ligeti to Hua Yanjun; Zhou Wenzhong to Saygun; and Liang Lei’s newly commissioned work.  Our collaboration not only reflects the individuality of the two instruments, but also transcends the integration and communication between Eastern and Western music cultures and artists.  

And I have to add how much I have enjoyed basking in the gorgeous sounds Hsin-Yun produces. Her rendition of the extremely energetic Three Gs was a particularly hard act to follow”

Both artists describe the contribution of the Meraki quartet thus:

“I am honored to be able to play my favorite ancient pipa piece Moonlit Night by the River in Spring with Meraki Quartet, which is also a must-play piece for my solo recital.  It amazed to me how quickly they picked up the style of the music with great accurately. Thanks to them!  – Wu Man”

“I was thoroughly impressed by how quick and willing the quartet was able to adapt to a free style of performing, experimenting with nuancing slides, timing that enabled a more authentic expression from the East. This was an arrangement done by a Columbia/Juilliard composer Sofia Jen Oweyang and presented by the Juilliard school as well. It is extremely meaningful to have a sense of cultural integration at these major conservatories with young musicians. I am hopeful for incremental artistic transformation and understanding for years to come. – Hsin-Yun”

Images of the Ligeti microtone annotation and traditional pipa scoring follow:


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