With pipa in hand, Wu Man returns to Fresno with a concerto written just for her

You might not think you could care a pip for the pipa.

But wait till you hear what Wu Man can do with one. The celebrated pipa player will play the traditional pear-shaped Chinese lute in a new concerto to be performed Sunday by the Fresno Philharmonic.

Here’s a rundown on this remarkable musician and her return visit to Fresno:

In the pipa world, she’s at the top.

Wu Man is acclaimed both in China and the U.S., and she’s played in many of the world’s great concert halls as the most prominent player to bring the pipa to the West. Born in Hangzhou, China, in 1963, she was accepted at age 13 into the prestigious Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. In 1990, she moved to the U.S. She makes frequent trips back and forth between the two countries.

How big of a deal is she?

Um, how about being proclaimed “the world’s greatest pipa player” by the Wall Street Journal?

Let’s put it this way: She asked Zhao Jiping — who some have called the “John Williams of China” because of his prolific career scoring music for such films as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Farewell My Concubine” — to write an original pipa concerto for her. So he did. The result is the composer’s Pipa Concerto No. 2. The piece was premiered in 2016 by the Sydney Symphony and co-commissioned by the Chinese National Symphony.


“This was specifically written for me,” Wu tells me in a phone interview earlier this week from her home in San Diego. (It’s especially fun to talk with her because I interviewed her in advance of her last Fresno appearance.) “I really enjoy his music. I like his artistry. I asked him for at least six years to write a piece for me.”

This piece reminds her of home.

Zhao Jiping was inspired by folk music from Wu’s hometown when he wrote the piece. This style, pingtan, quickly brings her back to her childhood.

What visuals does she “see” when she hears the music?

Bamboo trees, mountains and the green of the landscape.

“Every time I play I get goosebumps,” she says.

A pipa sounds like, well, a pipa.

When I heard her play one for the first time in 2014, one of the words that stuck with me was “flutter.” The pipa’s strings are plucked, and the sounds produced often have a sort of tangy vibrato. To watch Wu’s fingers fly — making sounds that you might never have quite heard before — is to watch a master at work. I remember just sitting back and being in awe.

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For several thousand years, music for the pipa was written in traditional Chinese style, of course. But recently a more hybrid compositional style has emerged that blends Western and Eastern traditions. That was Zhao Jiping’s approach with his second pipa concerto. You get the distinctive sounds of China, but that ambiance is complemented by Western instruments.

Western-style music is still the most popular form of classical music in China, with the piano being the most favored instrument, but there are many talented young pipa players studying in Chinese music conservatories.

You can see her in Fresno — or wait until New York.

In March, Wu will join with Yo-Yo Ma on cello in the U.S. premiere of “A Happy Excursion, Concerto for Pipa and Cello” with the New York Philharmonic. (Fun fact: The piece is written by Zhao Lin, the son of Zhao “John Williams” Jiping.)

“I’m really looking forward to returning to Fresno,” she says. “I had a wonderful visit the last time I came.”

Also on the program

Titled “Tales of the Silk Road,” the concert also explores East-West cultural exchange in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Missy Mazzoli’s musical love letter to a factory in Detroit, “River Rouge Transfiguration,” brings the globalization theme of the concert home to the U.S.

Concert info

Wu Man with the Fresno Philharmonic, 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $25-$79.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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