Sunday, November 8, 2009

Columbia and the world come together in music

Several of the world’s musical highways converge in and with Columbia this week.

The S.C. Philharmonic is hosting Wu Man, who plays the pipa, a Chinese lute, as guest soloist. Then Wu Man performs on the Southern Exposure new music series at USC.

“I knew that Southern Exposure had inquired about getting her to Columbia before, so I thought the Philharmonic playing a leading role in bringing her could be a catalyst," said Morihiko Nakahara, Philharmonic music director (below right.) "I hope we can do more collaboration like this.”

Wu Man plays “Pipa Concerto” by Tan Dun with the Philharmonic Thursday and does a solo concert for Southern Exposure Friday.

Southern Exposure director John Rogers, a composer, has for several years tried to book Wu Man. Now not only will she play for the series, but the night Wu Man plays with the Philharmonic, the orchestra will also perform Rogers' "Verge."

“Verge” is connected to another piece the on the Philharmonic program - “Pictures at an Exhibition” written by Modest Mussorgsky in 1874 for piano and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922. The concert will open with “Fanfair for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland.

The concert goes from China to Russia to France and the United States - no wonder the Philharmonic has titled it “Journeys.”

Grammy Award- winner Wu Man, a native of China who lives in California, has put the pipa all over the world map.

Philip Glass, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley who have all written pieces for her Wu Man, who lives in California, and she has been a part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. She played at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in 2000 for  “The Silver River,” a chamber opera.

For Southern Exposure she will play traditional works and others written during the past few years.
“Xu Lai (Meditation)” is a 1929 piece written by a composer who modernized the study and performance of traditional Chinese music with ideas borrowed from the West.  A 2004 piece by Nurlanbek Nyshanov is based on music of his native Kyrgyzstan. “Dance of the Yi People” is a 1960 arrangement based on folk tunes of the ethic group that lives in southwestern China.

Wu Man will also play her own “Night Thoughts” inspired by a cave complex in China filled with 1,500-year old paintings of pipa players and the improvisational “Collage.”

“I rarely play these two (type) concerts so closely together,” said Wu Man in an interview from New  York. “The two concerts are very different – two very different forms of music.”

Tan Dun’s concerto is an adaptation of his “Ghost Opera,” a semi-staged work written for the Kronos Quartet.
Tan Dun, who is also from China and lives in New York, has composed a piece played on pieces of paper, wrote and conducted “The First Emperor” for the Metropolitan Opera and was commissioned by Google to create “Internet Symphony No. 1.” His music is also widely known through his soundtrack for the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Earlier this week Wu Man, Kronos and director Chen Shi-Zheng  (who has directed four operas at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston) premiered “A Chinese Home,” a concert with staging and video, at Carnegie Hall.

The acceptance and acclaim she and the pipa have received has been a bit dram like, Wu Man said.

“I can’t see having a Chinese music at Carnegie Hall happening 20 years ago," she said. “When I came to this country, I had no idea what I could do. I brought five different instruments so if one wasn’t working out I could try another.”

Bridging the east-west musical gap wasn’t easy, but not as hard as one might imagine.
“The best way is to bring the different music together (as in the concerto),” she said. “It actually works well together.”

The pipa sounds close enough to the guitar, banjo and mandolin that even those with no exposure to Chinese music can relate. During the solo concert for Southern Exposure, Wu Man will talk about the instrument, the music and the individual pieces.

“I want the audience to leave knowing a little about the pipa and Chinese music,” she said.

Nakahara believes the Philharmonic will respond well to Wu Man and the pipa,

 “It is a highly theatrical and entertaining piece inspired by the Peking Opera tradition with stomping and shouting and in addition to playing,” said Nakahara. “It's a great introduction to how composers like Tan Dun are successfully infusing world music traditions into today's classical music.  I'm not nervous about it at all.  We have some of the most receptive and adventurous audiences here in Columbia.”

This concert will be the first time the Philharmonic has played a work by Rogers, who is on the USC music school faculty. 

“I’m thrilled,” Rogers said (left). “I’ve admired the Philharmonic for a long time and of course Morihiko is incredible.”

“Verge” was commissioned by the Albany Symphony in 1997 and released on the 1999 CD “Brutal Reality.”  Rogers and Nakahara met shortly after he became Philharmonic music director in 2008, but the conductor already owned the “Verge” recording.

“’Verge’ was originally written to precede the Mussorgsky/Ravel ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ so it was an obvious choice for this concert,” said Nakahara, who this weekend was conducting the Peoria (Ill.) Symphony where he is a finalist for the music director post.
Rogers has been commissioned to write music for New Century Saxophone Quartet, Opus Two, Bent Frequency, Ambassador Duo and guitarist Michael Nicolella among others and his compositions have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Bang on a Can Marathon and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“Verge” draws on many musics as well as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition:” West African drumming, pop music rhythms and a medieval practice of sharing a melodic line among two or more voices or instruments. The idea is that each of these elements is distinct but also linked in ways that contribute to a larger whole. The piece is a showpiece for all parts of an orchestra where each instrument expresses its particular strength and individuality.

“(‘Verge’) is a synthesis of ideas and techniques that at once pays homage to Mussorgsky and Ravel and to the many disparate genres of music that are important to me as a composer,” Rogers said. “It has to do with the idea of borders between genres and the blurring of those distinctions. It’s very much a reflection of who I am as a composer, drawing from a lot of wells.”

The piece was not created only to be played only in conjunction with “Pictures,” but for the Thursday concert it will be.
Mussorgsky wrote the 10-part piano suite in reaction to the death of his artist friend Victor Hartman and a posthumous show of his paintings. (One was the Paris underground image at right.) Inspired by the fantastical subject matter of the art, Mussorgsky created a kind of tour of the exhibition.

The score was not published until 1885 five years after the composer’s death at 41 of alcoholism. The “Pictures” most people know is the 1922 orchestration by Ravel.

Mussorgsky is best known for his opera “Boris Gudonov,” with orchestration by fellow composer and friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and “Night on Bald Mountain,” which came to wide public attention when it was used in the Disney movie “Fantasia” in 1940, and “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Wu Man's appearance with the Philharmonic has brought in a number of unusual sponsors including the Chinese doctor (from Doctor’s Weight Lose Center), the Chinese Association of Columbia and the Confucius Institute at USC.

“People are coming out of the woodwork for this,” said Rhonda Hunsinger, Philharmonic executive director.

The orchestra and the Confucius Institute are also doing cross promotions for the upcoming concert and the institute’s presentation of “Wind from the Plateau,” a music and dance production. The production Sunday, Nov. 7 at 3 p.m. at the Koger Center by Folk Art Ensemble from Guizhou University explores the arts of several ethnic groups of Southwest China – including the Yi, whose music inspired one of the works Wu Man is playing at Southern Exposure.

Not only will the philharmonic be crossing musical boundaries, it will also be crossing disciplines. The orchestra has partnered with the art group About Face which recently did drawings and paintings of the musicians in rehearsals. Those artworks will be on display and for sale during the concert. Proceeds will benefit the orchestra.

The S.C. Philharmonic with soloist Wu Man, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, No 12. Pre-concert talk by music director Morihiko Nakahara 6:30.  Koger Center, Assembly and Greene streets. $12 - $42. (803) 251-2222 or

Southern Exposure concert with Wu Man, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 USC School of Music, Assembly and College streets. Free. Seating limited. A reserved seat for the entire series can be made for a $75 donation. (803) 777-4280.

For more information on Wu Man, her recordings and video of her playing, including a snippet of Black Sabbath, go to
John Fitz Rogers’ website is

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