In a recent interview, the pipa player Wu Man reminisced about trains — one in particular.
Wu was speaking by phone from New York City during a tour with the Shanghai Quartet, which will bring them to Wellesley College on Sunday. They’d played at Wesleyan University the night before, and Wu had then taken the Metro-North into New York. Back in the early 1990s, she’d done the same trip in reverse: commuting from New Haven, where she’d recently arrived from China, to New York to play with an ensemble based in Chinatown — at churches, community centers, any place with an audience eager for the sounds of their homeland.
“It was exactly the same train,” said Wu in fluent, accented English. “It used to be $11. Now it’s $22.”
The price wasn’t the only thing that changed in the intervening years. Back then, Wu was a recent immigrant who’d abandoned what would have been a successful career, determined to succeed in a country where she knew almost no one and couldn’t speak the language. Today, she’s the world’s best-known performer on the pipa, a Chinese zither whose dry, stinging sound seems to connote Chinese musical tradition immediately.
She boasts a wide range of collaborators, including the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma. With the Shanghai, she’s curated a program of Chinese music ranging from traditional songs to a suite of music by Zhao Jiping, who scored the films “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell, My Concubine,” and who is known, Wu said, as “the John Williams of China.” She seems to be a musician able to create common ground with nearly anyone.
Reaching that point was not an easy process, she said. But “I think in some way, if you have that goal inside you, somehow you can reach it if you continue to work.”
Wu’s instrument had been chosen for her by her parents; most families in the Eastern city of Hangzhou neither knew nor could afford Western instruments. Many folksongs could be taught and played at home, but not in public. Government-approved patriotic pieces were the norm, even for the local symphony orchestra.
Her first significant exposure to Western classical music came in 1979, when Seiji Ozawa brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to China on tour. One concert was televised, and since only one family in her building owned a TV, everyone gathered around the small black and white screen to see and hear the Bostonians play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As important for the teenaged Wu as the music, if not more so, was seeing these Western cultural ambassadors being led by an Asian.
“Wow, this is a Japanese guy, and he’s conducting an American symphony,” she remembered thinking. “That gave me all these questions, like what is America? What do musicians do, and who is this Asian guy that he can conduct an American orchestra?”
Wu by then had been admitted to the prestigious Central Conservatory in Beijing, a great honor for her family and the beginning of a secure, preordained career. But it all seemed too confining. So she went to New Haven, where she had friends and family, began learning English, and commuted to Chinatown to play with an ensemble called Music From China, partly just to keep her fingering skills.
Her break came in 1992, when the Kronos Quartet was looking for collaborators on an Asian music project. David Harrington, the group’s violinist, was at the apartment of composers Zhou Long and Chen Yi, who’d both known Wu at Central Conservatory. They played him a video of one of her pipa performances.
The next day she got what she called “this very interesting phone call” from Harrington saying that he’d heard her playing and hoped they could work together. Wu, who was still learning English, couldn’t understand everything he said, but said yes anyway. Later she called Zhou and Chen and said, “‘Kronos Quartet, who is that?’ They were shocked.”
The group wound up commissioning Zhou to write “Soul,” the first-ever piece for pipa and string quartet, and premiering it at a music festival in Pittsburgh. Wu was petrified leading up to the concert. “That was the first time in my life that I worked with western musicians, western instruments — everything was a first.” Afterward, though, she saw and heard the audience’s standing ovation: “Suddenly, something opened up in me.”
Likewise, she retains vivid memories of the first performances with Ma’s cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, in 2000. The musicians came from so many countries — India, Iran, and Azerbaijan among them — and spoke so many languages that they needed a complement of interpreters just to start playing together. “It was a very slow process,” Wu recalled.
“And a few days later, the translators were quieter and quieter — we didn’t need them,” she went on. “It’s music [that] speaks everything. That’s kind of the experience that still stays with me.”
Shanghai Quartet and Wu Man : “A Night in Ancient and New China”
At Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall Auditorium, Wellesley College, Sunday at 3 p.m. Free admission, reservations required. www.wellesley.edu/event/node/75631
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.