Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
by Christopher Hyde
The Pipa, a long-necked, lute-like instrument, has been the quintessential voice of China for millennia, and Wu Man is its foremost player. We can thank Portland Ovations for providing the opportunity to hear her live, with the outstanding Shanghai String Quartet, Thursday night at Hannaford Hall.
The Chinese also have the oldest “classical” music tradition, and the earliest system of musical notation, which consisted of instructions to scholars about where to place the fingers on the strings, rather like labanotation in dance.
A close approach to this tradition was in Wu Man’s first solo, “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset,” a highly atmospheric work that showed off all of the considerable possibilities of the Pipa. Its tone is hard to describe, but once it has been heard, it can never be forgotten. It sounds like the human voice, speaking highly inflected Chinese, full of overtones, reverberations on open strings, chromatic slides and castanet sounds, to name a few.
The latter clicks often seemed like an extension of the treble beyond the point of human hearing.
Like the piano, it is capable of what seem like long-sustained notes but are actually trills or rapid hammering on a single string. Wu Man is a master of this technique, which makes the Pipa sing like the flute in the title.
Equally evocative was the “Red Lantern” suite, derived from film music by Zhao Lin (b. 1974) and played by Wu Man and the quartet. It was accompanied by filmed images of a traditional Chinese courtyard. The five movements depict stages in the life of an isolated family behind its walls. The most effective, and strangely the liveliest, of the sections is that entitled “Death,” which is followed by a Romantic epilog. The Pipa imitation of rain on water alone was worth the price of admission.
After intermission, the Shanghai Quartet showed what it could do with Western classics, in a bravura rendition of the Beethoven String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”). The quartet has everything—a singing tone, a wide range of dynamics, and near perfect balance, all in the service of a well-thought-out conception of the work. The Op. 95 is a caged leopard that escapes in the final bars.
The Tan Dun Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa, which concluded the program, was the opposite of serious, verging on the frivolous. While it shows off Wu Man’s virtuosity, it consists primarily of a series of musical jokes from almost every tradition on earth, without much to hold them together except the stage presence of the musicians.
Some of the jokes are even a little old, such as treating the orchestral tuning to “A”-440 as composed music. (I remember my father telling that one, about an Arab potentate who liked the first number on the program.) Still, nothing that Tan Dun writes is dull, and the audience gave the performance a well-deserved standing ovation.
If I had any quibble about the program as a whole, it would be that some of the Chinese works sounded too “Western,” almost like Dvorak. I put it down to the influence of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when anything that smacked of bourgeois revisionism— meaning anything that Mao or Stalin didn’t like— could be severely punished.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.