Wu Man and her pipa.
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March 3, 2016
The superb Shanghai Quartet returned to town on Feb. 28 with pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Wu Man and a program that leaned heavily to music by Chinese composers. The lone exception: Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, in one of the most luminous Beethoven quartet performances I can recall.
Students at the Shanghai Conservatory established the string quartet in 1983. Three founding members remain — violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang and violist Honggang Li. The American cellist Nicholas Tzavaras joined in 2000. Their appearance at Temple Beth-El was sponsored by the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.
Wu Man, a frequent collaborator with the Shanghai, also has been a principal musician with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Born in Hangzhou, China, she moved to the United States in 1990 and now lives in California, though she returns often to her homeland as a visiting professor at three Chinese conservatories.
The pipa has a history of some 2,000 years in China. In its present form, it has four strings, 26 frets on its pear-shaped resonator, and six “ledges” on its neck. The instrument’s construction and its traditional playing techniques — plucking or strumming the strings, rapping on the soundboard in various ways — enable a wide expressive range. The pipa’s traditional possibilities were most clearly on display in a solo piece, the 19th-century “Xi Yang Xiao Gu” (Flute and Drum Music at Sunset), which featured rapid tremolos, some sliding notes and wonderful variations in color.
But Wu Man also has collaborated with contemporary composers to bring the pipa into the sound world of the present. Tan Dun composed his “Ghost Opera” in 1994 for her and the Kronos Quartet. A version of that work, minus most of its original theatrical elements and natural sounds, closed this concert. The music draws from a remarkable mix of sources, from Bach to Chinese tradition to Modernist complexity. The “Earth Dance” is raucous, recalling an American hoe-down, with shouts from the musicians. The following movement is a sublime interweaving of the Chinese folk song “Little Cabbage” with a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp Minor from Book I (not Book II, as the program note says) of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” “Metal and Stone” are evoked with forceful pizzicati, shouts and slashing downbows. The sound world is strange, sometimes frightening, but always compelling. Agreeable but less interesting were three pieces for string quartet by Yi-Wen Jiang, based on traditional Chinese pieces but crafted in a style derivative of Dvorak; and Zhao Lin’s “Red Lantern,” for pipa and string quartet, in a style largely derivative of Ravel, with maybe a touch of Tchaikovsky.
As in previous appearances here, the Shanghai Quartet impressed with its “distinctively plush, warm, creamy sound and interpretive refinement,” to quote from my assessment of its 2009 concert, in which its playing was sometimes too refined, too fully planned. This time, in the Beethoven F Minor, the sound was luxurious as ever, but the playing was enlivened by a freedom and flexibility that seemed to suffuse the first movement with light and the fourth with restless energy, like a living thing. The troupe was fully faithful to the score without seeming to be constrained by it.
Shanghai Quartet, Wu Man
Members of the Shanghai Quartet with pipa virtuoso Wu Man
Photo by Ben Doyle