The celebrated musician Wu Man on Friday introduced the pipa, the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument, to the Fresno Philharmonic audience.
It was exhilarating.
There are those, I’m sure, who would tend to steer away from a concert like this — Chinese music is just too “weird.” But I strongly encourage people with that avoidance mindset to take a chance and broaden their horizons. Wu Man’s performance of Tan Dun’s Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa was a mesmerizing and joyful romp encompassing two musical cultures. Beyond Ms. Wu’s polished expertise, it was almost as fun watching the members of the orchestra stray beyond their own comfort levels, joining enthusiastically in a performance that included stomping, plucking, tapping and vocalizing. The customary cool orchestral detachment melted away, giving us something that hinted at the primal.
What’s more, all this takes place in the intimate Shaghoian Hall, where you’re close enough to the musicians to really feel the impact. You have two more chances to experience this unforgettable concert, one of my favorite all-time Fresno Philharmonic experiences: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. (My only regret about Friday’s event that there wasn’t a bigger crowd.)
Maestro Theodore Kuchar cannily programmed the evening with an “East Meets West” theme, sandwiching the pipa concerto between two beloved Beethoven symphonies, first the 8th, then the 7th. You could tell from the start that this would be an intimate, visceral affair, with Kuchar — conducting from memory with no score — free to entice and cajole his musicians into crisp musicality. (At one point the emotive Kuchar, unencumbered by a podium, nearly bent to floor level, cajoling the strings as he pumped one arm up and down, as if he were tilling the fields.)
Then came time for Wu to take the stage. She sat down happily, her pipa in her lap. At first the lute-like instrument almost seemed too big for her — the top of her head just reaching above the base of its thick neck — like it was a slightly too large dog sitting contentedly in its person’s lap. But then Wu’s fingers began to dance, and the instrument became like an extension of herself. The pipa concerto begins with a foot stomp from the entire orchestra, and from there, it’s a whirlwind of music stretching from plaintive to frenzied. Wu entranced the audience with the various personalities of her instrument. The range she demonstrated was amazing, from the tiniest pinprick of a note to a full-fledged grating effect that sounds like a washboard.
Yet Tan Dun’s piece is more than just pyrotechnics. It builds, relentlessly, and then suddenly releases into tender melancholy. (Wu at one point shared a beautiful duet with concertmaster Stephanie Sant ‘Ambrogio). It also somehow manages, between Kuchar’s light-hearted intensity and Wu’s calming sense of bemused contentment, to be a lot of fun. By the end I felt as an audience member a sense of completion and release.
To top it off, the orchestra returned after intermission to give us a rousing Beethoven’s 7th. The musicians were like athletes on a sports team who come back after a strong first half to share a continued communal high, driving forward toward a dominant victory. I simply loved this concert — and hope as many people get a chance to experience “East Meets West” as possible.