Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble come to Weill Hall
In the ever-widening circle of world music, Wu Man is known as a rock star, an exponent of the traditional Chinese repertoire and an interpretor of contemporary music written for pipa, an ancient, four-string instrument.
As chronicled in the new documentary film, “The Music of Strangers,” the diminutive virtuoso also serves as one of the key members of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a band of about 20 musicians from around the world who are getting together this summer for a 10-city U.S. tour that includes Sonoma County.
The Silk Road Ensemble will perform at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19 as part of the Summer 2016 Weill Hall + Lawn series and will end their tour in Los Angeles, concluding their residency at the Getty Center.
Since 2000, the Silk Road Ensemble has been exploring how the arts can deepen global understanding and learning across borders. The cross-cultural band includes virtuosos on instruments ranging from the Galician bagpipes to the Japanese shakuhachi flute, and tries to model new forms of cultural understanding through performances, workshops and residencies.
Their concerts typically include traditional music from different countries along the Silk Road, new compositions inspired by that music and music composed or arranged by ensemble members that showcases their East-West collaboration.
“During the early times, we thought it was a three-year project,” said Wu Man in a phone interview from her home in San Diego.
“But because the world turned out differently (post 9/11), we - and especially Yo-Yo - thought it was important for us to continue, both as musicians and cultural people.”
We caught up with Wu Man in mid-July, just after she appeared at a Q&A for “The Music of Strangers” premiere in San Diego, and just before she headed off on a trip to China.
Q: Can you talk about why this unusual ensemble was put together from musicians all over the world?
From the film, you get the idea that for us, everything starts with the music. Sixteen years ago, we started at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, and our focus was on music.
What we were trying to do is to look for some common point, no matter whether East or West. We met together and wanted to create a new musical language. That was the starting point.
Q: What would you say is your mission now as a group?
We have so many musicians from Central Asia - Uzbekistan, Azerbajian, all those areas. So we wanted to not only do music, but through music to communicate with each other and to share with the audience a different culture. It’s important that we all know each other.
Q: Can you talk about your own development as a pipa player and a cultural ambassador?
I was born in 1964. During the Cultural Revolution, I was very young. My father was a visual artist and my mom was a teacher, and they both loved music. That’s why they picked up that traditional instrument to give me.
Of course, I am rooted in the Chinese tradition. But my experience as a musician is entirely different from my teacher’s generation.
The whole society has changed, even from 30 or 40 years ago. I was 9 when I played all the traditional pieces and trained in the Chinese conservatory. And the question was, “OK, what’s next?”
Would it be possible that other people could know this instrument? The pipa is from Central Asia and Persia, from 2,000 years ago. So we were already learning from each other.
I came to the states in 1990 after my conservatory training. I came looking for my musical journey. In China, I was already part of the faculty and a high-profile child prodigy. But I wanted to see a bigger world outside.
Q: When did you hear Western music for the first time?
Because I went to music school, we had a library of records. The first time I heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was on a record in the classroom.
When I was in middle school, I heard the Boston Symphony on a visit with conductor Seiji Ozawa.
That was the first time I heard a live symphony. It blew me away. The power of it. We didn’t have concert halls at that time, so they played in the stadium in Beijing.
Q: How have you changed as a musician over the years?
I can hear much more age and maturity in my music. All the collaborations, with groups like the Kronos Quartet, and so many composers, have nurtured me in many ways.
Q: How many pipa concertos have you performed?
The concept of a traditional instrument playing a concerto is very new, but people have started writing concertos now. I have played at least 10 concertos by people like Lou Harrison and Tan Dun. Philip Glass also wrote one for me.
Q: What’s your itinerary going to be like for the Silk Road Ensemble tour?