History and Geography in Music: Pipa player Wu Man and the NZSQ

Wu Man (pipa) and the New Zealand String Quartet
Music by Tan Dun, Zhao Jiping and Zhao Lin, Tabea Squire and arrangements

St. Mary of the Angels

Thursday 28 September  2017, 7:30 pm

If you didn’t hear Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday on 23 September, go and listen to the online archive now. A poignant interview with Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s most compelling dancer / choreographer, is to be found there … as humane and considered a conversation about art as practised and life as lived that you could hope to find.

Alongside it sits Hill’s interview with Wu Man, the world’s leading player of pipa, traditional Chinese lute, and the inspiration for many contemporary composers who have contributed to the revival in popularity of the instrument. The petite and spirited Wu Man  featured in Yo Yo Ma’s film and project, The Music of Strangers, and she shares with him a sense of urgency about the need for communication between peoples in different parts of the world who see music as a way, possibly the best way, to explore what is different and distinct, and what his identical and shared, among us.

An insightful spoken introduction by Luo Hui recounted the planning and managing needed for a visit such as this, which has also included a workshop and masterclass lecture. The Confucius Institute and the New Zealand School of Music have done the yards, and Kim Hill’s interview will have lit the candle to result in a capacity audience.

From the programme note by Sally Jane Norman, NZSM’s director: “In addition to her legendary musicianship, Wu Man’s commitment to cross-cultural communication resonates with the vibrant legacy established by Jack Body, central to our Asia Pacific identity”. It seemed only logical to pass to Wu Man a copy of the book Jack! celebrating composer Jack Body that Steele Roberts generously published, just before we lost our dear friend and colleague in 2015. (That ‘and’ is problematic when talking about Jack. If you were his colleague you were his friend. If you were his friend you were his colleague…perhaps ‘and’ should be ‘equals’).

The programme opened with two solos, traditional pieces for pipa, Flute and Drum Music at Sunset, exquisitely and accurately titled as the percussive effects of this instrument were shown to equal the melodic. White Snow in Spring is a Chinese echo to Le Sacre du Printemps that combined the promise of new season with wild storms demanding sacrifice. Butterfly Love, for pipa and string quartet, used the folk and opera musics from Wu Man’s hometown, Hangzhou. Such practice appealed very much to Chinese composers in 1960 – 1980, and here it was shaped into concerto form. It is by now clear from Wu Man’s playing that the pipa demands virtuosity of the highest order yet can also whisper the quietest secrets.

A movement from Chimaera for violin and pipa, was a lively and adventurous work by Wellington composer Tabea Squire. It was given a spirited introduction and then spunky performance by Monique Lapins together with Wu Man who keeps clarity within a shimmering dexterity. (I’d have been glad to see composition dates included on the otherwise excellent printed programme).

Red Lantern for Pipa and String Quartet was derived from the original score for the film Raise the Red Lantern by composer Zhao Jiping, here adapted by him and his composer-son, Zhao Lin. There were  narrative-cum-poetic moods in its five sections – Prelude moonlight, Wandering, Love, Death, Epilogue. About all there is really.

The second half of the concert opened with the string quartet Eight Colours by Tan Dun, from 1986, which he describes as “almost like a set of brush paintings … with timbre and actual string techniques developed from the Peking Opera… finding in it a way to mingle old materials from my culture with the new …”.

The final work, Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa, again  by Tan Dun,  makes demands of many sorts –  percussive, lyrical, and vocal – of the performers and they rise to and relish that fully. A great deal of rhythmic movement and expressive gesture is delivered so you might say that these musicians are dancing… but they are now seasoned performers sharing the stage with Royal New Zealand ballet dancers, so why not?

In the restored and beautiful St. Mary of the Angels church, the capacity audience gave a standing ovation for a programme of exquisite music from long ago, far away, as well as right now, right here. Radio New Zealand was recording, bless them. Tell me I’m breathless and using too many superlatives. Who cares? It’s the truth.

As I wrote this review Kim Hill was interviewing an inspirational school teacher (I think he later became Dean of Arts at University of Auckland) but basically History and Geography were his classroom subjects.  He’d have loved this concert because those subjects were effectively its theme.

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