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The Pipa Played On

by Christopher Arnott | Jun 23, 2013 11:45 am

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Music

Christopher Arnott Photo If you saw the internationally renowned new-music ensemble Kronos Quartet play live on New Haven Green Saturday night, you know they were marking several milestones.

The concert, presented by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, was the first show in Kronos’ 40th anniversary season. The ensemble is also breaking in a new cellist, Sunny Jungin Yang. This was her first regular performance with the group, and her mother and grandmother had flown in from overseas to see her play.

The phrase “breaking in” applies better, however, to a harrowing ordeal experienced by the June 22 show’s special guest, Wu Man.

Wu Man played (and, for one extraordinary and ethereal number, sang) with Kronos Quartet for much of the second half of the concert. She plays the pipa, a centuries-old traditional Chinese instrument that has four strings, a pear-shaped body and large tuning pegs that jut out from its long curvy-topped neck.

Wu Man is one of the best-known pipa players in the world. This year she was named Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America Worldwide, which noted that “her work is part of a big step in the evolution of Western classical music.” Besides the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man has worked with or performed works by a number of other contemporary classical groups known to Arts & Ideas audiences: Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Bang on a Can and Philip Glass.

Wu Man was flown from San Diego on Friday. All was well until she had to change flights at Philadelphia, where a small U.S. Airways plane was ready to take her to New Haven’s Tweed Airport.

Pipas can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are not the sort of object which devoted musicians entrust to the cargo section of airplanes.

Wu Man Photo Wu Man’s pipa wouldn’t fit in the overhead compartment of the plane. She asked if she could strap the instrument into the empty seat next to her, but was denied. The flight attendant told her that the plane had a coat closet. The flight attendant then took the pipa to the closet… where the U.S. Airways employee dropped it, snapping its neck.

Horror-struck, Wu Man stayed behind in Philadelphia with the shattered pipa. Arts & Ideas found her a later flight into Hartford.

Pipas, however, are not so easily rerouted. To be fixed, Wu Man’s instrument has to be sent to specialists to China.

A show which had been among the first announced for Arts & Ideas 2013 (in a special preview declaration six months ago), a show which was being filmed for a documentary, a show which was one of the most significant classical musical concerts of the year, was suddenly imperiled. Wu Man had collected herself and was prepared to play. But you can’t just go to Sam Ash and pick up a new pipa.

Kronos Quartet had arranged for a back-up pipa in case of just such an emergency, but it was in Queens, other preparations for the concert were in full swing, and time was of the essence.

Every big Arts & Ideas event has its own staff coordinator. The coordinator for the Kronos Quartet show was Ryan Davis. As soon as he was apprised of the decapitated Pipa, around 6 p.m. Friday, Davis said, “I called some of my friends at the Yale School of Music, with no luck. We looked for rentals, but there was not much there. Besides, it was a Friday night. Then I found listings of music tutors and instructors in Connecticut.” On that list was a pipa instructor in Simsbury named Yihan Chen.

When contacted, Yihan Chen had of course heard of Wu Man. She freely offered the loan of an instrument. It arrived around 12:30 p.m. Saturday on the Green, where Wu Man had to acquaint herself with it hours before a major performance.

Arts & Ideas’ overall production manager, Doug Harry, described the process as “breaking in a new boyfriend.” Wu Man is also known for doing things that are not usually attempted on the Pipa. She plays it soft and hard, and is noted for her swift fingering.

The Kronos Quartet played virtually its entire set at an open rehearsal Saturday afternoon, taking over two hours. The strains of such modern composers as Bryce Dessner (of the National, the acclaimed indie rock band which has numerous Yale and New Haven connections) and minimalist icon Terry Riley filled the air as David Dimitri of L’homme Cirque did his hallmark emergence from the circus tent along a tightrope above the Green.

When Kronos stopped rehearsing, and Wu Man had gained some confidence on Yihan Chen’s Pipa, there was a separate classical event on the Green—a community play-in anchored and conducted by the Haven String Quartet, for which dozens of local violinists and other string players (including young Rosemarie Webster, daughter of Arts & Ideas Executive Director Mary Lou Aleskie) had downloaded sheet music online and then played live for a large appreciative audience near the Green’s flagpole.

There was not a pipa in that ensemble. Kronos Quartet and Wu Man were back in the bandstand soon enough to fill that void. They presented a powerful concert which continually confronted traditional sounds with post-industrial ones, which sounded warm and comforting even when it popped and scratched, and which suited the strong outdoor breezes on the Green with its own sonorous gusts of glory.

In the midst of it was a relieved and resplendent Wu Man, doing what she’d been brought to New Haven to do, the pipa borrowed but her professionalism and talent unsullied by butter-fingered U.S. Airways flight attendants.

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas has another week of events planned, including a free live concert by Funkadesi Sunday night at 7 p.m. on the Green. For a full schedule of Arts & Ideas events, click here.

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posted by: parejkoj on June 24, 2013  10:05am

This was a wonderful concert (4 encores?), and I thank Yihan Chen for the loaned instrument that helped it happen.

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