Wu Man brings a Chinese village ensemble to the Bay

Wu Man, the best known virtuoso player of the pipa, a lute-like four-stringed Chinese instrument, is also an acclaimed ethnomusicologist.

Both pursuits have led her to “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band,” a show in the making for years coming to UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall in a Cal Performances presentation this weekend.

The show — `with offerings unfamiliar to most Western audiences — combines pipa solos alternating with flute and drum music; a battle song by Tang general Qin Qiong; the puppet play “All Desolate on the Eastern Campaign”; a meditation on the vanity of human ambitions from Cao Xueqin’s 18th-century novel “The Story of the Stone”; martial songs and more.

Wu Man, a cultural ambassador and child prodigy in Beijing, created the piece after she traveled to some of China’s most remote regions while curating a series for Carnegie Hall’s China Festival.

Upon discovering a shadow puppet band in a small village called Huayin, she says, “I was so fascinated and deeply affected by their performance that I had to bring them to Carnegie Hall.”

After the initial visit, she went back to the village again and filmed them for her documentary “Discovering a Musical Heartland.”

“Their music is so raw and real — very different from the polished concerts we typically see in the concert hall,” she adds. “I want to share this with audiences across our country and bring awareness to this music that is still being performed today in the remote villages of Northern China.”

Formerly known as the Zhang Family Band, the group continues a centuries-old tradition of blending music with drama and classic Chinese shadow puppetry. The art form first appeared during the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Qianlong (1736-96) and has been passed down from generation to generation.

Huayin Shadow Puppet Band plays Chinese folk music in Berkeley. (Courtesy Huayin Shadow Puppet Band)

Wu Man’s artistic journey began in her native Hangzhou. At age 13, she became the youngest student at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Later, she became the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa. After her first exposure to Western classical music during visits to China by Seiji Ozawa and Isaac Stern, she visited the U.S. as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe.

In 1990, she moved to the U.S., where she collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, became a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and a leader of cross-cultural movements.

She continues to find a place for the pipa (and similar Chinese string instruments) in new solo and quartet works, concertos, opera, chamber, electronic and jazz music, as well as in theater productions, film, dance and collaborations with visual artists including calligraphers and painters.

Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band
Presented by Cal Performances
Where: Hertz Hall, Bancroft Way at College Avenue, UC Berkeley campus
When: 3 p.m. March 11
Tickets: $34 to $68
Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calfperformances.org

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.

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