April 11, 2016

Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet Baffle at Bailey

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Wu Man is a peerless virtuoso of the pipa, a Chinese lute-like instrument rarely heard stateside in close quarters, much less in the hands of its greatest living master. On Sunday night, the Shanghai Quartet paired it with classical strings, closing out the Cornell Concert Series with an adventurous program. The results, however, were inconsistent and, at times, baffling.

The Shanghai headliners began with three Chinese folksongs — “Yao Dance,” “Shepherd’s Song” and “Harvest Celebration” — beautifully arranged by the quartet’s second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang. The last two songs in particular, both from the southwestern province of Yunnan, varnished the grain of their arranger’s relationship with the music of his homeland, further showcasing the superb technique, dynamic control and finesse that have earned the quartet high regard. Sparingly applied techniques, including percussive tapping of the cello, lent delightful tactility. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the concert’s concluding “Concerto” for string quartet and pipa by renowned composer Tan Dun. In this version, reduced from an orchestral original, the pipa felt out of place. It was, rather, the backbone of a piece which, despite colorful shouting and extended approaches from the string players, proved Wu Man as the focal point of the evening. She commanded the hall so much that the Concerto was better read as a robust adventure for the pipa soloist, to which the addition of strings seemed an afterthought.

Thankfully, Wu Man’s incredible talents grabbed some deserved spotlight in a traditional solo known as “Xi yang xiao gu,” or “Flute and drum music at sunset.” Shed of the modern contrivances that flanked it, its colors shone all the brighter. Wu Man’s artistry was best expressed in the subtle changes — bending pitches and such — which she applied to notes after they were plucked, thereby evoking so much of the landscape and texture the music was meant to describe. Here were rhythms of nature recreated in an instrument born from it: a perfect cycle.

All of which made Zhao Lin’s “Red Lantern” suite all the more incomprehensible for its inclusion. The piece itself has a formidable heritage. Zhao Lin is the son of China’s great film composer, Zhao Jiping, whose soundtrack for Zhang Yimou’s 1991 Raise the Red Lantern stands among his finest. Its assembly of voices and traditional instruments enhanced the film’s tragic social critique of the courtyard house (sanheyuan) system still prevalent in 1920s China. The film’s long takes and thorny emotional unfolding, emblematic of its director’s “Fifth Generation” politics, caused the film to be initially banned in China. As someone intimately familiar with both the film and score, I was confused by Zhao Lin’s reduction of his father’s work, and by the multimedia presentation of which it was one component. On the latter point, the performance was accompanied by video shot in a modern Chinese courtyard, presumably to echo the setting of the film. In her introduction to the piece, Wu Man bizarrely asked us to imagine drinking tea in such a courtyard while listening to the music. But all I could imagine was Yan’er, one of the characters in Raise the Red Lantern, freezing to the point of collapsing in the central courtyard, for all a martyr of the story’s patriarchal injuries.

Even without the source material in mind, the newer video was an incongruous series of shots, replete with modern skyscrapers visible in the background and exit signage appended to doorframes, all of which ruined the atmosphere. Why not show a montage of the film itself, or at least something more appropriate that didn’t look like the test footage of a tourism video? In any case, the music alone was a watered-down version of the original that obscured the film’s tragic subtext. Zhao Lin’s skills fall far from the paternal tree, and hearing these pedantic arrangements of familiar motifs made even less sense with the invasion of new imagery. The whole thing struck me as nothing more than a compositional favor to exploit this rare combination of instruments.
The penultimate piece of the program, Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in, was more successful. A fluid piece of cohesive character meant to evoke the sounds of the titular ch’in, a traditional seven-stringed zither, it had a messy, organic feel that allowed us greater access to an emotional world in which diverging styles of music melded together seamlessly. But by then the unpleasant ring left in my ear, and my heart, by the historical and creative revisionism of Zhao Lin’s technical exercise was too deafening to ignore.

Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected].