Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Wu Man, pipa
Feb. 19, University of Richmond

Wu Man, the most widely recognized player of the pipa, the Chinese lute, joined the Shanghai Quartet in a program of traditional and contemporary music from China, and several works by Chinese-American composers.

The pentatonic musical scale used in most Chinese music, as well as the country’s instruments and expressive techniques, differ from those of European and American music, but don’t sound as exotic or alien to Westerners as they did several generations ago.

That’s not just due to the rapid recent growth of multiculturalism. Western curiosity about Asian cultures, including Asian music, dates back centuries. Plus, some families of instruments are similar regardless of their countries of origin. Lutes look and sound much like one another, whether they’re called lutes, mandolins, balalaikas, ouds or pipas.

How they’re played also can vault over continents and centuries. As Wu Man played the traditional Chinese “Xi Yang Xiao Gu” (“Flute and Drum Music at Sunset”) and the Central Asian “Kui: Song of Kazakhstan,” it was not too much of a stretch to imagine those pieces adapted for an Appalachian stringband – assuming you could find a mandolinist nimble enough to pull off her speedy fingering and exceptionally light touch at the quietest volume.

Regrettably, they were the program’s only samples of her solo playing. Playing with the Shanghai, as she did in Tan Dun’s Concerto for pipa and string quartet, a suite from Zhao Jiping’s film score for “The Red Lantern” and two folk-song arrangements by Yi-Wen Jiang, the quartet’s second violinist, the pipa virtuoso became part of an ensemble, often playing a supportive or coloristic role.

Both the film-score suite, arranged by the composer’s son, Zhao Lin, and Jiang’s arrangements of “Butterfly Lovers” (perhaps the most familiar of all Chinese folk songs in the West) and “Yao Dance,” are substantially Westernized.

The rhythms and phrasing of the Chinese melodies are moderated for Western ears, and the tone of bowed strings, singly and collectively, is much the same as one would hear in a European-romantic string quartet. The lead violin parts, played by Weigang Li, sounded especially lush and lyrical – probably thanks in equal parts to the arrangers and to the string-friendly acoustic of Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center.

The Chinese accents of Tan Dun’s concerto are less diluted, but still show the influences of Western modernist-classical style. Zhou Long’s “Song of the Ch’in,” in which the string quartet evokes the sound of a Chinese zither, is even more authentically Chinese in character. Long’s quartet was securely under the players’ fingers – it has been part of the Shanghai’s repertory for two decades. Interestingly, the foursome’s only non-Chinese member, cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, sounded especially expert in producing zither-like tones and figures.

Wu Man and two members of the quartet, violinist Jiang and violist Honggang Li, were music-school classmates in their youths, and the five players’ mutual regard and respect for one another’s musicianship was audible throughout the program.

The more idiomatically Chinese the music sounded, though, the better they played.