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Chinese virtuoso solos at pair of ASO concerts

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published November 8, 2012 at 2:28 a.m.


Pipa virtuoso Wu Man joins conductor Philip Mann and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for a pair of Masterworks concerts this weekend.

— Wu Man won’t be playing Beethoven and it isn’t certain whether she’ll be wearing bluejeans, but she will be the soloist in the Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa by Tan Dun this weekend for a pair of “Beethoven and Bluejeans” concerts with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and conductor Philip Mann.

Wu Man is considered the premier player of the pipa, a lutelike, 2,000-year-old traditional Chinese instrument with a wooden body and four strings with frets, played by plucking the strings with the fingers.

The concerto was the result of her commission to Tan Dun, probably best known by nonclassical audiences for his film scores (including those for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero).

“He wrote it a long time ago,” she says, first as a 1994 piece for pipa and string quartet called Ghost Opera, later reworking and orchestrating it, in 1998-99, into more of a conventional concerto.

“Over more than a dozen years, I have played in many places,” the soloist says. “It’s quite a unique piece. It’s a chance to introduce my instrument and the composer.”

Wu Man has worked to make the pipa more familiar and more prominent to Western audiences by commissioning works from, among others, Philip Glass and the late Lou Harrison — “over the last 20 years, at least 10 with different combinations, string or full orchestra,” she says — as well as through the Silk Road Ensemble (with cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and Kronos Quartet.

In her native Hangzhou, China, Wu Man saw the reintroduction of Western music into China in the 1980s in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (during which Western music was largely banned), and Chinese composers began writing pieces that fused Eastern and Western colors and sounds.

Wu Man, who previously had played at Fayetteville’s Walton Arts Center during a University of Arkansas residency, is making her first visit to Little Rock. As usual, she has to be careful on behalf of her instrument about the climatic conditions.

“It’s very sensitive,” she says, “all the strings, the bamboo, special wood.” At a concert appearance in very humid Miami, she recalls, the instrument went from air conditioning that was “freezing cold” into a very hot theater.

“All the glue got out,” she says, and she found herself running around to guitar shops to make temporary fixes until she could get back home to New York.

“I can fix myself the little things,” she says. “Huge repairs I have to take to China.”

The “Beethoven” part of the orchestra’s annual “Beethoven and Bluejeans” concerts will be the overture to Ludwig van’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. Mann and the orchestra will conclude the concert with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-part Arabian Nights tone poem, Scheherazade.

The orchestra and much of the audience will be in jeans. And a “Beer & Brats Street Party” will kick things off at 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, with free brats and $2 Diamond Bear beer for ticket holders and a performance by the Episcopal Collegiate School Steel Drum Band.

And if you bring along a frozen turkey or some other frozen poultry to help Arkansas Foodbank provide holiday meals to Arkansans struggling with hunger, you can get a pair of free tickets to any 2012-13 orchestra concert.




8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Robinson Center Music Hall, West Markham Street and Broadway, Little Rock. Wu Man, pipa; Philip Mann, conductor. Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43; Tan Dun: Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa; Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade, op.35

Sponsors: KKPT-FM, 94.1, “The Point” and AT&T

Tickets: $14-$52; free for children in grades K-12 to the Sunday matinee with paid adult (Entergy Kids Ticket)

(501) 666-1761

Weekend, Pages 42 on 11/08/2012

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