Two-time Grammy nominee Wu Man performs on pipa (Chinese lute) with the Shanghai Quartet for Red Lantern by Zhao Jiping and Zhao Lin, based on the soundtrack to Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated film Raise the Red Lantern. She and the quartet also perform Tan Dun’s seminal work, Ghost Opera. Completing the program are two pieces for the quartet: Yi-wen Jiang’s ChinaSong and Song of the Ch’in, by Grammy nominee Zhou Long.
Shanghai Quartet with Wu Man, pipa
Weigang Li, violin
Yi-Wen Jiang, violin
Honggang Li, viola
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Wu Man, pipa
|Traditional (Yi-Wen Jiang, arr.)
Selections from ChinaSong (2002‒13)
Yao Dance (after Tie-Shan Liu and Mao Yuan)
Shepherd’s Song (after Han-Kuh Sha)
Harvest Celebration (after Jing-Ping Zhang)
|Traditional (Wu Man, arr.)
Kui: Song of Kazakhstan (2012)
Wu Man, pipa
Red Lantern, Quintet for Pipa and String Quartet (2015)
Derived from Raise the Red Lantern by Zhao Jiping
Wu Man and Shanghai Quartet
Song of the Ch’in (2003)
Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa (1999)
Bach, Monks, and Shakespeare Meet in Water
Dialogue with “Little Cabbage”
Metal and Stone
Song of Paper
Wu Man and Shanghai Quartet
Recorded in concert at the Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History, as part of the Meyer Concert Series and in cooperation with The Smithsonian Associates.
Selections from ChinaSong
Yi-Wen Jiang, arranger (born 1963)
Some years ago I developed the idea of arranging a few sets of Chinese folk songs along with popular music by various Chinese composers. I grew up with many of these pieces, and I played some as solo works for violin and piano during the difficult days of the Cultural Revolution.
These works are short and diverse; some are based upon traditional folk songs, and others were composed recently. Although their musical style is not complexly structured or sophisticated, the pieces seem to be accessible and enjoyable for a general audience. The themes speak to the individual listener because they are expressive, direct, and easily absorbed and understood. I asked myself: “Why not arrange them for string quartet, which is the setting I love the most? That way I can play beautiful Chinese music again and also bring it to a wider audience with my group, the Shanghai Quartet.”
I sifted through many songs and began arranging them for string quartet or/and other small ensembles. Some of the folk songs are usually performed by a singer, violin, or piano, or by Chinese traditional instruments, such as the pipa (lute), erhu (fiddle), suona (double-reed), and xiao or dizi (bamboo flute). I didn’t want simply to imitate traditional Chinese instruments when we play these pieces. I tried to make the harmony and the structure closer to traditional Western styles. The idea is that Chinese music can be played on Western instruments and thus can be enjoyed internationally.
The use of folk materials of China’s minority nationalities was extremely popular among Chinese composers between 1960 and 1980. The Yao Dance I chose was originally written by Mao Yuan and Tie-Shan Liu, based on a folk song about Yao, a mountain village in Guizhou in the southwest region of China. The work has three large sections, and within each section are two themes. In the opening, the viola and cello, playing a soft pizzicato, hint at the arrival of nightfall. Some Yao dancers, dressed in floating, colorful garments, gather in the moonlight. The second violin then plays a simple but expressive melody as a beautiful young girl starts to dance. The rest of the dancers join her soon thereafter. The theme suddenly takes on an ardent and rough character, suggesting a group of young men that cannot refrain from dashing into the group to join the dance. The strong contrast in the music depicts the striking personalities of the Yao people. The middle section is in 3/4 time, and its melody moves back and forth between a singing quality and a rhythmic dancing figure, as if two young lovers are expressing their adoration for each other. In the recapitulation, the viola starts the first theme before being joined by the other strings. The second theme is more vivid and passionate, with each voice alternating its entrance until the whole quartet plays together in a loud and fast coda in a culmination of the evening’s celebration.
Shepherd’s Song is a popular folk song stemming from the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. It was often played on a traditional two-stringed Mongolian instrument called a “horse-head qin,” because a hand-carved horse’s head is on the top of the qin (zither) instead of a scroll. There are several versions of this piece, including one by the famous Chinese composer Han-Kun Sha, who arranged Shepherd’s Song for violin solo with piano accompaniment. As the shepherd puts his cattle out to graze, the surroundings inspire him to express his love of nature and his feelings of nostalgia for his homeland. He sings, “White clouds are floating in the blue sky. Under the clouds there is a flock of snow white sheep.” The lyrical melody brims with deep emotion. The free rhythm and Dvořákian harmony in the lower strings’ arpeggio figures create a quiet, misty atmosphere, suggesting patches of soft clouds floating over meadows. The music reaches a passionate climax before subsiding again into an atmosphere of tranquility and peace. We in the Shanghai Quartet were very honored that Mr. Han-Kun Sha was in the audience for our performance of this piece in Shanghai in 2001. He was deeply moved and happy to hear his piece in a brand new form.
Harvest Celebration is an original piece by violinist and composer Jing-Ping Zhang. He composed this piece for violin with piano accompaniment while he was a professor at the Nanjing Arts Institute. The work is one of my favorites, and I have always kept it in my solo repertoire as a wonderful encore piece. For centuries the majority of the Chinese population has lived off the land, so the harvest celebration, coming after a year of hard plowing and weeding, has always been one of the great events in people’s lives. Based on four short phrases, the violin tries to imitate the sound of the suona—a double-reed wind instrument with a very loud high pitch, similar to an oboe—while drums, cymbals, and gongs (suggested by the lower strings) are beaten boisterously. The rapid switches of meter and rhythm suggest the competitive improvisations typical of traditional Chinese celebrations. The music evokes images of the peasants singing and dancing with boundless joy.
Kui: Song of Kazakhstan
Wu Man, arranger (born 1963)
For this piece, Wu Man arranged a Kazakh folk tune that she heard performed on the dombÿra, the two-stringed plucked lute that is widely regarded as a cultural symbol of Kazakhs. Nomadic Kazakhs have long represented an ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. In Xinjiang, Kazakhs speak their own language and maintain their own musical traditions. The pipa is believed to have entered China through contact with peoples that ancient Chinese sources described as “northern barbarians,” that is, nomads. In performing this virtuosic nomadic melody on the pipa, Wu Man brings her instrument full circle, back to its Central Asian origins.
Red Lantern, Quintet for Pipa and String Quartet
Zhao Lin (born 1973)
I was very honored to be invited by pipa virtuoso Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet to compose a new work for pipa and string quartet. This piece is a tribute to my father, the composer Zhao Jiping, and to the great tradition of music from China.
Red Lantern is derived from my father’s original music, which was scored for the great Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Inspired by Chinese traditional Beijing opera, this work explores its unique musical style and language with the many colors of our traditional music. The quintet is a suite of stories that takes place in a traditional Chinese private courtyard (四合院) through the centuries. Through five movements it tells an emotional story of Chinese family relationships in older times and the impact of the family's isolation from society.
― Zhao Lin
Song of the Ch’in
Zhou Long (born 1953)
The composer notes, “This work from 2003 is intended for the string quartet. The ch’in (qin) is a traditional Chinese seven-stringed, plucked zither that was associated with sages and scholars. The sophisticated technique of qin playing involves various ways of plucking the strings, as well as range, timbre, and the use of ornamentation. This composition for string quartet captures the essence of the special musical gestures that are frequently found in qin music.”
A Ming-dynasty qin was on view in the Sackler exhibition Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Professor Bell Yung gave performances on qin in the Sackler in May 2016, which can be heard on our concert podcast, with full program notes and a slide show of related images.
Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa
Tan Dun (born 1957)
Tan Dun’s Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa is a five-movement chamber version of his Ghost Opera. The composer describes this work as a reflection on human spirituality, which is too often buried in the bombardment of urban culture and the rapid advances of technology. It is a cross-temporal, cross-cultural, and cross-media dialogue that touches on the past, present, future, and the eternal. It also employs elements from Chinese, Tibetan, English, and American cultures as it combines performance traditions of the European classical concert, Chinese shadow puppet theater, visual art installations, folk music, dramatic theater, and shamanistic ritual.
In composing Ghost Opera, Tan was inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic “ghost operas” of Chinese peasant culture. In this tradition, which is more than four thousand years old, humans and spirits of the future, the past, and nature communicate with each other. Tan’s Ghost Opera embraces this tradition, calling on the spirits of Bach (in the form of a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp Minor from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier), Shakespeare (a brief excerpt from The Tempest), ancient folk traditions, and earth/nature (represented by the Chinese folk song Little Cabbage). The Bach excerpt acts, the composer says, as “a seed from which grows a new counterpoint of different ages, different sound worlds, and different cultures.” In the final movement, the gradual transformation of the counterpoint brings the spirits of Bach and Shakespeare, the civilized world, and the rational mind—“this insubstantial pageant"—into the eternal earth.
Wu Man, pipa
Wu Man is one of the world’s premier pipa virtuosos and a leading ambassador of Chinese music. She creates and fosters projects that lend this ancient instrument an expanded role in today’s music world by introducing it to new audiences and by commissioning and premiering more than a hundred original works. A two-time Grammy Award-nominated artist, Wu Man’s adventurous musical spirit has made her a respected expert on the history and preservation of Chinese musical traditions.
Wu Man has worked with many of today’s leading musicians and conductors, such as, Dennis Russell Davies, Christoph Eschenbach, Cho-liang Lin, Yo-Yo Ma,, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and David Zinman. She is a principal member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. In addition, she has performed and recorded with the Kronos Quartet. She has interpreted pieces by composers Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi. Her most recent CD showcases the music of folk traditions from around the world with Grammy-winning collaborators Daniel Ho (guitar and ukulele) and Luis Conte (percussion).
Highlights of her 2015‒2016 season included performances of Zhao Jiping’s Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Shanghai Quartet, one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles, is renowned for its passionate musicality, impressive technique, and multicultural innovations. Its elegant style melds the delicacy of Asian music with the emotional breadth of Western repertoire, allowing it to traverse musical genres, including traditional Chinese folk music, masterpieces of Western music, and cutting-edge contemporary works.
Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the Quartet has worked with many of the world’s most distinguished artists, and it regularly tours the major music centers of Europe, North America, and Asia. Recent performances range from the international music festivals of Seoul and Beijing to the Festival Pablo Casals in France, Beethoven Festival in Poland, Yerevan Festival in Armenia, and Cartagena International Music Festival in Colombia. The Quartet has appeared at Carnegie Hall not only in chamber performances but also giving the premiere of Takuma Itoh’s Concerto for Quartet and Orchestra in 2006. Among their collaborations with noted artists are performances with the Tokyo, Juilliard, and Guarneri quartets, cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell, pianists Menahem Pressler, Yuja Wang, Peter Serkin, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pipa virtuosa Wu Man, and the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer.
The Quartet has a long history of championing new music and juxtaposing traditions of Asian and Western music. The Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary season brought five new commissions: Bullycide, for piano, string quartet, and bass by David Del Tredici; Fantasie, a piano quintet by Australian composer Carl Vine; a concerto for string quartet and symphony orchestra by Jeajoon Ryu; Verge Quartet by Lei Liang; and Scherzo by Robert Aldridge, commissioned by Yu Long and the Beijing Music Festival. Its twenty-fifth anniversary season featured Penderecki’s String Quartet no. 3: Leaves from an Unwritten Diary; Chen Yi’s From the Path of Beauty; String Quartet no. 2 by Vivian Fung; and jazz pianist Dick Hyman’s String Quartet. Chen Yi’s From the Path of Beauty, co-commissioned with Chanticleer, premiered in San Francisco and was followed by performances at Tanglewood and Ravinia and in Beijing and Shanghai.
Its extensive discography of more than thirty recordings range from the Schumann and Dvořák piano quintets with Rudolf Buchbinder to Zhou Long’s Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra with the Singapore Symphony (BIS). Delos released the Quartet’s most popular disc, Chinasong, a collection of Chinese folk songs arranged by Yi-Wen Jiang and based on his childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution in China. In 2009 Camerata released the Quartet’s recordings of the complete Beethoven String Quartets, a seven-disc project.
A diverse and interesting array of media projects include a cameo appearance playing Bartók’s String Quartet no. 4 in Woody Allen’s film Melinda and Melinda to PBS television’s Great Performances series. Violinist Weigang Li appeared in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras was the subject of the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep.
The Shanghai Quartet currently serves as quartet-in-residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University in New Jersey, as ensemble-in-residence with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and as visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. The musicians are proudly sponsored by Thomastik-Infeld Strings.
This concert was part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and presented jointly at the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History by the FreerǀSackler and the Smithsonian Associates.
Podcast coordination by Michael Wilpers, F|S manager of performing arts. Thanks to Andy Finch and SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, and especially the artists for granting permission to share their performance on the Meyer Concert Series.
The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer. It is generously supported by Elizabeth E. Meyer, Melissa and E. Bradley Meyer, the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund, the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment, and numerous private donors.