The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is paying the pipa this weekend, and however much they are paying her, she is worth every penny.
Wu Man emerged from the wings Saturday night in a red and gold dress and raspberry-colored tights and stole the hearts of the listeners (a bigger crowd than you would think, considering the snowstorm that hit at the last minute). Her charm was topped only by her virtuosity on the pipa, a large traditional Chinese lute-like instrument.
The pipa sounds like a cross between the banjo and the balalaika. Concentrating beneath her black bangs, Wu Man flew up and down its strings with supreme agility. Each note was sharp and distinct, and there was such a variety of articulations – a chirp, a rattle, a sharp snap – that you had to smile. The instrument’s unfamiliarity was part of the fun. Sometimes the notes bend up at the end, lending a bittersweet tone.
Wu Man is playing a concerto written for her by Zhao Jiping, a composer trained in Beijing and known for his movie scores, most notably “Farewell, My Concubine” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”
Jiping’s concerto, and I say this with deep admiration, harks back to old Hollywood. It feels as if it could accompany an epic. His melodies linger in your mind. His musical language occasionally made me think of the Hollywood Bowl’s great Carmen Dragon, whose sparkling Christmas carol arrangements we often hear at Holiday Pops. Jiping sometimes has the violins playing portamento. There are muted, poetic woodwinds.
Against this lush backdrop, Wu Man could always be heard, the notes crisp as crystals. She always gave the impression of being engaged with the orchestra, Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer and the audience. The end was lovely, with valedictory chirps from the orchestra musicians, in various combinations, accompanying the pipa’s closing melodies. Jiping seemed to be borrowing from Richard Strauss, who did something similar in his Four Last Songs.
The audience loved it, and many stood and cheered, and the applause went on for so long that Wu Man played an encore. I don’t want to give away just yet what it was called. The title was so funny and so apt, and she might play it again today, if today’s crowd is lucky.
The entire concert has a theme of sensuality. It has memorable ambiance. Kleinhans is strung with red Chinese lanterns in honor of the music’s Asian flair. Artists are in the lobby demonstrating calligraphy and other Chinese paper arts.
First on the program is Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan,” a piece that sparkles with the twinkle of the celeste, the thrilling whoosh of gongs. You hear a languorous melody from the oboe, a rich and beautiful cello theme. It builds to a great crest, with gongs and timpani going full power and the great volume finally dissolving into a soft muttering. This piece and the BPO have a storied history. The orchestra recorded it on Naxos, and it was performed as far back as 1941, with Franco Autori conducting.
In contrast, Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” reportedly had never been performed here before, at least not on the Classics series. This enchanting piece, a sound picture of a Tsarist Russian military caravan passing an Arab caravan in the middle of nowhere, is a tremendous pleasure to hear live. Kraemer paced it well, and the musicians handled all the essential tiny details beautifully. In a way, this piece was the heart of the concert, with its portrait of two very different cultures greeting each other with friendliness and a kind of unspoken acknowledgment of kinship. Christine Bailey did a lovely job with the faint final phrase, as the Tsar’s soldiers vanish into the distance.
The concert closed with Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, the most sensuous music imaginable. The women of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, after waiting all evening for their turn in the spotlight, sang out in that third Nocturne as if they enjoyed it. Kraemer kept the tempo going and didn’t let things get too cloudy.
The exotic concert repeats at 2:30 p.m. today.