Trailblazing Musician Wu Man in Residence at Oberlin

The pipa virtuoso and composer will perform with the Verona Quartet, teach, and lecture

February 20, 2023

Cathy Partlow Strauss

Wu Man and the Verona Quartet
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Verona Quartet and Wu Man

The pipa is not an instrument on which students at Oberlin Conservatory perform, but the lute-like instrument developed in China more than 2000 years ago is influencing increasingly more concert music found on stages throughout the world.

This is due in large part to the artist Wu Man, recognized as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and a leading ambassador of Chinese music. She’ll be in residence at Oberlin February 24-25 and take part in three events across campus that culminate in a concert with Oberlin College quartet-in-residence, the Verona Quartet. All events are free and open to the public.

Wu Man has carved out a career as a soloist, educator, and composer, giving the pipa a new role in both traditional and contemporary music. The creative projects she has initiated have resulted in the instrument finding a place in numerous musical settings and genres, as well as in collaborations in theater productions, film, dance, and with visual artists.

Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man was an early trailblazer. She was hailed as a child prodigy at age 13 and went on to earn the first master's degree in pipa the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She moved to the U.S. in 1990 and was awarded a Bunting Fellowship at Harvard Radcliffe in 1998.

Since then, she has performed as a soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras and is the leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music written by composers including Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Tan Dun, and Bright Sheng.

Her notable career has also been marked by several “firsts.” She was the first Chinese traditional musician to receive the United States Artist Fellowship and the first artist from China to perform at the White House. In 2013, she was named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year.

She is a founding member of the Silkroad Ensemble and is a frequent collaborator with ensembles such as the Kronos and Shanghai Quartets.

It is her work with quartets—as well as her performance at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival—that inspired the Verona Quartet to reach out to Wu for a new collaboration.

“We were at the festival and heard Wu Man’s concert, and were so struck by her artistry,” says Verona’s cellist, Jonathan Dormand. “That was the genesis of this particular project.”

Dorothy Ro, Verona Quartet second violinist, expanded: “Wu Man has commissions from leading composers and is a composer herself. This program came together through a conversation about the meeting point between the western classical string quartet and the Chinese folk idiom, as well as how this interaction could become a mechanism for exploring the voices of global cultures and traditions.”

The members of the multi-award-winning Verona Quartet hail from locations far and wide: first violinist Jonathan Ong is from Singapore; Ro is Canadian; violist Abigail Rojansky ’11 is from the San Francisco Bay area; and Dormand is from England.

Dormand explained, “We come from all over, so the notion of ‘home’ is something that we’re very interested in exploring. Every culture, from every corner of the world, has discovered a way to find expression through music.”

The partners have titled the program, "Goin' Home: An exploration of nostalgia and searching for home." “Goin Home” is sourced from Antonín Dvořák’s song setting in the Largo movement of his “New World” symphony—and it is the idea of “home” that serves as the guidepost for the music chosen. The performance here in Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall will be the first for the collaboration. They will be on tour with this program next season.

Wu Man’s residency at Oberlin begins with a lecture on at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, February 24 in Dye Lecture Hall. Part of Oberlin Shansi’s Jacobson-Cocco Lecture Series, she will give a talk, “Unexpected Cross-Cultural Collaborations,” about her personal journey creating a career for herself in a country which had no pipa tradition.

On Saturday, February 25, Wu Man’s work turns to the Conservatory, first with a 10:30 a.m. master class for students in Oberlin’s Performance and Improvisation program. Performance and Improvisation (PI) Ensembles provide an opportunity for students to enrich their existing musical vocabularies and skills through practical exploration of many different world musics and improvisation across a range of genres and styles.

That evening at 7:30, audiences will be treated to the concert. They will perform works by John Dowland, Antonín Dvořák, Luigi Boccherini, Sulkhan Tsintsadze, Zhao Jiping, and Wu Man. The concert is free, but reservations are required.

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