When Wu Man used to practice her pipa as a child in China, she would open the windows, and the lute-like instrument could be heard for “miles away.”
“It only has four strings,” she said in a phone interview from her home in San Diego. “But sometimes, it sounds like a thousand strings.”
But it was the pipa's quieter, more spiritual voice that inspired her to pick it up at 9.
“It can be very loud and dramatic and percussive and exciting,” she said. “But also the opposite: very elegant and slow and meditative. That's the part that really attracted me.”
The world's leading pipa player will reveal the many voices of her pear-shaped instrument this weekend when she gives the American premiere of Zhao Jiping's Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra with the Santa Rosa Symphony.
The East-meets-West concerts, led by Guest Conductor Enrique Arturo Diemecke at Sonoma State University's Green Music Center, will open with Mozart's Symphony No. 15 and close with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale.”
Named Musical America's 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, Wu Man also has become an ambassador of Chinese music, a muse for contemporary composers and a frequent collaborator with ensembles from the Kronos Quartet to Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.
During recent trips to her native China, she also has spearheaded multimedia projects aimed at preserving ancient pipa melodies and traditions.
“I wanted to find my musical roots,” she said. “I talked to folk musicians, and I realized everything traditional is endangered, because the next generation is no longer interested.”
In early 2012, Wu Man released an album, “Borderlands,” which traces the history of the pipa in China as part of a Smithsonian Folkways' ethnographic series.
That led her to the outskirts of the country, where she also made a folk music DVD called “Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man's Return to China.”