Pipa Virtuoso Wu Man Feted at UC San Diego

The UC San Diego Music Department offered an audience friendly celebration of Chinese culture Tuesday afternoon, honoring the musical career and contributions of pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Chinese composer Lei Liang, a distinguished senior member of the university’s music faculty, hosted the event that was capped by a performance of Liang’s composition “Vis-a-Vis,” written for Wu Man and Liang’s equally distinguished UCSD faculty colleague, percussion virtuoso Steven Schick.

Wu Man [photo (c.) Frank Smith]

In Wu Man’s interview with Liang on the UC San Diego Conrad Prebys Concert Hall stage, she demonstrated many of the techniques required to produce the wide range of the pipa’s sounds, and she also demonstrated the difference between playing a literal reading of a theme on a published score as opposed to how such a theme would be performed by someone who understood the non-notated nuances of traditional pipa performance. We also learned that before Wu Man took up this ancient instrument, performing on the pipa in public was an exclusively male prerogative.

Naturally, Liang’s  “Vis-a-Vis” is a flamboyant, bravura exercise—what else could a composer create for two acclaimed virtuosos? Schick’s percussion station spread out over half the Prebys Concert Hall stage. A large marimba faced the audience with an assemblage of drums, wood blocks, and suspended cymbals encircling Schick like the long tale of a mythical dragon. In stark contrast, Wu Man sat on a small stool far across the stage with only a mic on a slender stand picking up and gently amplifying the bright sounds of her instrument.

Considering the range of percussion sounds Schick communicated with his trademark assertive yet refined prowess, I thought the lustrous cascades of lightly hammered suspended cymbals quickly contrasted with sharply malleted resonant wood blocks provided Lei’s most telling and memorable motifs. Complementing the score’s ample percussion power, Wu Man sustained vigorous flourishes—similar to a guitarist’s rasgado technique—that revealed a coppery metallic quality. These dense, vibrating chords not only provided a center to Liang’s work, but from them themes emerged that helped shape this brilliant 15-minute sonic fusillade.

Wu Mann will also be appearing with the Silkroad Ensemble’s November 10, 2023, program titled American Railroad. To fit this upcoming concert’s program staged at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego, Wu Man will be performing her new composition inspired by Cantonese traditional folk music that early railroad workers brought with them from their homeland.

The event at the University of California San Diego on October 24, 2023, was sponsored by the Chou Wen-Chung Distinguished Lecture Series on Chinese Culture.

The upcoming Silkroad Ensemble concert at the Balboa Theatre on November 10, 2023, is sponsored by the La Jolla Music Society.

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