East meets West - Wu Man & NZSQ

19 October 2017 / News

Monique Lapins reflects on the NZSQ's recent collaboration with celebrated pipa player Wu Man 

The NZSQ and pipa virtuoso extraordinaire Wu Man recently collaborated in an exhilarating concert which united the musical forces of the East and West and the unique sounds of the pipa with string quartet. 

Wu Man is best known for her regular collaborations with the Kronos Quartet and tours with the Silk Road ensemble, founded by internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Her performances on the lute-like pipa have relaunched the reputation of this 2000 year-old instrument in the West, with multiple Grammy Award nominations and Musical America naming her 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year. Our concert with her in Wellington marked the end of a week-long ‘pipa festival’, supported by the Confucius Institute and The New Zealand School of Music, including intriguing talks and seminars given by Wu Man and intensive rehearsals with the NZSQ. 

While rehearsing with Wu Man, we were transported into the realms of traditional and contemporary Chinese music. It was striking to hear the musical lyricism and character Wu Man brought to the pipa. This instrument is humble in appearance and looks quite fragile. Yet in the skillful hands of Wu Man we were drawn into the multiple tone colours and voices this instrument is capable of, ranging from soaring cantabile lines to percussive effects when special techniques are engaged.

The NZSQ has previously collaborated with Asian performers and composers, both in New Zealand and abroad, but for me personally it was so intriguing to enter this sound world. Many of the works we performed drew on influences from Chinese opera, requiring performers to be fully committed and often theatrical in their musical gestures - including yelling out and stomping on the ground with absolute conviction! Some works carried a sense of continual agitation and frenzy, as could be heard in Tan Dun’s Concerto for Pipa and Quartet and his wonderful string quartet Eight Colours

For me, it was exciting to have the opportunity to perform Tabea Squire's duo for violin and pipa entitled Chimaera. Tabea is a New Zealand composer and graduate of the New Zealand School of Music. She created a virtuosic and deeply interwoven conversation between the violin and pipa that was full of fire, drama and energy. 

Other works on the programme, such as Butterfly Love by He Zhanghao/Chen Gang and Red Lantern by Zhao Lin (adapted from the sound track to the film Raise the Red Lantern) were more serene in quality, reflecting the positive and open character associated with traditional Chinese folk music. 

All in all, this concert had an electric atmosphere, with a buzzing audience surrounded by the soaring architecture and acoustics of the newly-renovated St Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington. For me, this concert really highlighted the incredible power music has in joining and uniting cultures of the world.

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