Wu Man is a peerless virtuoso of the pipa, a Chinese lute-like instrument rarely heard stateside in close quarters, much less in the hands of its greatest living master. On 1o April 2016, the Shanghai Quartet paired it with classical strings, closing out the Cornell Concert Series with an adventurous program. The results, however, were inconsistent and, at times, baffling.
The Shanghai headliners began with three Chinese folksongs — “Yao Dance,” “Shepherd’s Song” and “Harvest Celebration” — beautifully arranged by the quartet’s second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang. The last two songs in particular, both from the southwestern province of Yunnan, varnished the grain of their arranger’s relationship with the music of his homeland, further showcasing the superb technique, dynamic control and finesse that have earned the quartet high regard. Sparingly applied techniques, including percussive tapping of the cello, lent delightful tactility. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the concert’s concluding “Concerto” for string quartet and pipa by renowned composer Tan Dun. In this version, reduced from an orchestral original, the pipa felt out of place. It was, rather, the backbone of a piece which, despite colorful shouting and extended approaches from the string players, proved Wu Man as the focal point of the evening. She commanded the hall so much that the Concerto was better read as a robust adventure for the pipa soloist, to which the addition of strings seemed an afterthought.
Thankfully, Wu Man’s incredible talents grabbed some deserved spotlight in a traditional solo known as “Xi yang xiao gu,” or “Flute and drum music at sunset.” Shed of the modern contrivances that flanked it, its colors shone all the brighter. Wu Man’s artistry was best expressed in the subtle changes — bending pitches and such — which she applied to notes after they were plucked, thereby evoking so much of the landscape and texture the music was meant to describe. Here were rhythms of nature recreated in an instrument born from it: a perfect cycle.