Wu Man
Wu Man | Credit: Call the Shots Photography

Wu Man first performed Lou Harrison’s pipa concerto, written especially for her, in 1997 at Lincoln Center, with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. On Feb. 11 and 12, the internationally recognized master of the pipa will perform the concerto at the San Francisco Symphony for the first time. And on March 30, the San Diego Symphony will present a chamber music concert with Wu Man that will include a traditional Chinese music along with a quintet for flute, pipa, percussion, violin, and cello by Australian composer Ross Edwards.

Wu Man, who was born in Hangzhou, China, began studying the lute-like instrument when she was 9 years old, and at 13, she was accepted at the prestigious Beijing Central Conservatory of Music.

The musician has lived in the U.S. for almost 30 years, and she enjoys bringing Western music to China and introducing people in the United States to Chinese music. She’s played with the Kronos Quartet, toured with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and performed as a soloist with many major orchestras. She collaborates with modern composers and musicians from different cultures, playing music including jazz and folk, along with classical.

In a video interview from her home in Carlsbad, Wu Man talked about trying to communicate through music, how listening to music from different cultures makes your life better, and how she admires Lou Harrison for taking on writing a concerto for pipa when he was in his 70s. And she wishes everyone a good Year of the Tiger.

Wu Man
Wu Man | Credit: Wind Music

Why did you start playing the pipa?

The pipa is a quite popular instrument in China. It’s existed for long, long time. I heard it on the radio and saw pictures of it. Then my parents said, “Oh, this is good for a girl to play.” So it was my parents who chose it for me, and I loved it. I started to play when I was 9 years old. I studied the first few years with a private teacher, and then I went to music school to be a musician.

Can you remember what you loved about it when you started playing it?

I saw my later teacher in a film in the theater that was like a documentary concert of a performance. My teacher played the pipa, and it was very dramatic piece, and I said, “Wow, this is so cool.” Then at first, I think because of the dramatic sound and all the fingering, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing,” but when I started learning more, it was so difficult. It’s a very difficult, demanding instruments. When I was 13 years old, I went to music school as I mentioned. And then when I finished high school and went to college, the guy playing in the film became my teacher, and it was like a dream come true. His name is Liu Dehai, and he was one of the best pipa teachers in China.

How has your relationship with the pipa changed? Does it still seem dramatic to you?

Liu Dehai
Liu Dehai was Wu Man's pipa teacher | Credit: Central Conservatory of Music

Well, now, I don’t know how many decades I’ve been with the instrument. [Laughs] Now it’s become part of my life, and it’s become something like another person to me — I joke that sometimes it feels like a lover. I have a hate and love relationship with the pipa — it’s involved too much in my life. Even traveling, I always carry it. I usually travel because I have concerts. But sometimes on a family vacation, I feel like I’m missing something. I will panic, like, “Oh, I didn’t bring my instrument.” I would say I’ve spent the majority of my life with the instrument. But also every year, every level, there’s a challenge for me. So I wouldn’t actually say hate, but challenge. It never stops — you go to different phases, you become a professional musician, you have your own language with the instrument, and then what next? what project? what piece are you going to play and what are you going to share with the audience?

When you took a master class with Isaac Stern at your school, he talked about what it means to be a musician and that it’s about communicating. What struck you about that?

When I was sitting in the audience, that was the first time I heard that word, I was a young kid — what did that mean? Why do you want to be a musician? What is music doing for people? Since then, I’ve been trying to understand that word and that meaning and trying to be a real musician, which means communicating with people using my instrument.

What do you feel you are communicating?

I always try imagining like if I’m the audience, would I get it? If I get it, it doesn’t matter what you get. If I say “Wow, that was amazing, that music so touched me,” that’s communicating. When you walk out of the hall, and you feel like, “Wow, that was something I can remember in my life.” That sound or that motion or that music’s story or something — that’s communicating. Somehow you can touch people you can lead the audience to think further — that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s like deeper thinking. It’s not like, “Oh, yeah, that was fun,” but to me, besides fun, would I get it?

Lou Harrison

What does it feel like to play a concert Lou Harrison wrote for you?

That’s very, very special to me. Lou wrote this piece in 1997. Later that year my son was born, in November 1997. I remember during my pregnancy I practiced that piece and then it premiered the following year, and my son had been born. So the meaning to me is like birth. Also, this is the first American composer, or I would say the first Western composer to write a piece for a pipa in history, and it was especially for me! That’s even more memorable, more special.

I want to tell you a story. Lou obviously didn’t play pipa, but I think in his early years, he went to Taiwan to study music and in his early years and he lived in Bay Area and he was involved with the Chinese community and played with them. When he wrote it, he told me, “I’m not going to write like classical pipa music. I will write it in own way, in my own scale.” So it’s not do re mi fa sol, and it’s very interesting, very different, and it doesn’t sound like any Chinese or American scale —it’s very Lou Harrison.

In that time, we didn’t have email yet. There were no cell phones. So for everything, we talked on the phone and he faxed me. He faxed me the first page when he finished it to see if I could play it.

How did you meet each other?

Dennis Russell Davis, who conducted this piece, was Lou’s very close friend. After I first played with Dennis in New York, Dennis said, “I really think Lou would love your instrument — let me ask him.” He called him in front of me. He said, “Lou, are you interested to write a piece for an instrument called the pipa?” and Lou said, “Oh, I know the pipa.” At that time Lou was in his 70s, and I highly respect that he still took the challenge to write something for an instrument that he wasn’t familiar with. That’s how the piece happened, and it premiered in Lincoln Center in New York. Dennis conducted with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and I premiered it, and Lou Harrison was in the audience.

What do you like the most about introducing Chinese music to western audiences?

It’s like what I experienced — I grew up in China, and I didn’t know American music — I’d never heard jazz and a lot of other music. The culture was very unfamiliar to me. But I came here, I opened my mind and I opened myself, and I took everything with the idea to learn, and I feel like my life, it got really full. It was really beautiful to understand more about the arts from America and Europe. I think that’s very beneficial for your life and for audiences here too if you have a chance to learn and hear something different, I think it’s not a bad thing for your life. [Laughs] You will feel more confident, much more full of happiness, and you will understand the world better and what’s going on.

You were recently in China for four months. What do you focus on when you’re teaching in China?

Wu Man
Wu Man | Credit: KuanDi Studio

I share my experience with the younger generation and the students, and also I show my instrument and what I’ve been doing. It’s a very similar process to what I do here when I introduce Chinese music or introduce my instrument, and the culture of China I grew up with. I just want to show the younger generation there are many, many kinds of music out there. So in China, it’s the same thing, I say there’s other things besides Chinese music. I’ve been doing concertos, I have been playing with the symphony, an Australian composer wrote a piece, an American composer Lou Harrison wrote a piece, what does it sound like, what’s the difference with a Chinese composer? I’m kind of like a bridge. [Laughs]

What resounds with people in China about Western music?

Western classical is a big thing in China, and a lot of kids are learning piano, so it’s not strange to them. What they’re interested in is how you merge new pieces and how you use a Chinese instrument in a contemporary piece, what kind of music is in the future? For the younger generation, there are so many possibilities, and the young generation is very open minded.

What does the pipa add to western music?

Music belongs to everyone. If you look at the history, there’s nothing that’s 100 percent from one place. Like the pipa came from central Asia, from Persia. Instruments travel and become something else. If I wanted to dig in the roots of my instrument, it’s in family of the lute and with the oud from the Middle East. I think that’s the reason I wanted to be musician because although the pipa now is situated in China for 2,000 years, but still we can speak a different language with music, and we can work together and find a different sound. I don’t know — 100 years later, the pipa probably will become very popular in the U.S. and become a U.S. instrument, like a banjo. Who knows? [Laughs]

And I’d like to say — the concerts are basically during Lunar New Year week, the Year of the Tiger, so I really wish for everyone to have a wonderful Year of the Tiger. I think it will be good. The tiger is strong and humble and so healthy. I’m very excited and I wish for the audiences coming to see the concert to celebrate this tiger year.

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