Review: Pipa steals the show during Fresno Philharmonic’s ride down a ‘Silk Road’
Catching up from the weekend (it was the first full week of classes at Fresno State, so I got a little behind):
I think it’s pretty clear by now that I have a musical crush on the pipa. When Wu Man, considered one of the world’s leading players of this ancient Chinese lute, came to play with the Fresno Philharmonic in 2014, I was hooked. And when she returned on Sunday to perform Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2, is it too much to say that I swooned? For me, it was the highlight of a very fine concert, titled “Tales of the Silk Road.”
Here’s a rundown:
Pipa fan club: I’m intrigued by instrument’s sound. At times it suggests the twang of a banjo, and at others I picture the Spaghetti Western-style, exaggerated cowboy lope of a strummed violin. Yet there are times when the pipa makes sounds that seem almost unworldly. The instrument creates a hard-to-place, warbly, muffled daintiness. I think of an opera singer gargling her notes.
Pictured at top: Fresno Philharmonic conductor Rei Hotoda and Wu Man backstage. Photo: Facebook
The virtuosity: Her blur of fingers reminds me of those insects so light they scurry across surfaces of water. She makes it seem so effortless.
The concerto: This hybrid piece has a “best of both worlds” feel, a blend of West and East, with the lushness of the orchestra’s string section a pleasing contrast to the pipa’s twang. Zhao Jiping is considered one of China’s foremost composers of film music, and the cinematic quality of the score, inspired by the folk music of Wu Man’s home region, helps me see the green of the countryside and vibrant landscapes of the area. Thank you, Wu Man and Zhao Jiping, for the jet-lag-free visit to China.
The rest of the program: Last season, In “Aaron Jay Kernis’ “New Era Dance,” conductor Rei Hotoda last season captured the jangled intensity of New York City. I thought of that piece listening to Missy Mazzoli’s “musical love letter to Detroit,” a composition titled “River Rouge Transfiguration.” This time, instead of traffic and Central Park, the orchestra captures factories and machines. The music, under Hotoda’s bustling conducting, is both shimmering and industrial, an intriguing combination. (And it made a nice transition into the pipa piece.) The final selection on the program, Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral ode to “Scheherazade,” a reference to the famed storyteller in “One Thousand and One Nights,” is a crowd favorite as well, with the first movement’s nautical theme offering sweep and power, and the third movement’s memorable finale giving concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio a powerful moment in the spotlight as she delivered impossibly high notes held impossibly long. Just beautiful!