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Wu Man finds her stride with Silk Road Ensemble

The Silk Road Ensemble (with Yo-Yo MWu Man (front row from left) performs concert Oct. 13 Symphony Center.

The Silk Road Ensemble (with Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Man (front row from left) performs in concert on Oct. 13 at Symphony Center.

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Silk Road
Ensemble with
Yo-Yo Ma

◆ 8 p.m. Oct. 13

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $55-$170

◆ (312) 294-3000 or (800) 223-7114; cso.org

Fusing classical music with other international traditions is hardly new.

Beginning in 2000, however, the Silk Road Ensemble expanded this idea in innovative ways, looking to the East and West for inspiration and enriching its music with related cross-cultural educational initiatives.

The presence of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most beloved classical artists in the world, as its artistic director gave the group immediate legitimacy and stature in the field, and it has gone on to become a big hit with audiences worldwide.

The ensemble, with 13 diverse artists from such countries as Iran, Spain, Israel and Japan, will perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 13 in Symphony Center in its first appearance in Chicago since its seasonlong Silk Road Chicago project in 2006-07.

While Ma remains the most visible face of the ensemble, its popularity has done a great deal to heighten the profile of its participants, none more so than founding member Wu Man.

The 48-year-old Chinese-born musician is likely the world’s most widely known player of the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute with a history that dates back some 2,000 years.

Though it is primarily a folk instrument, Wu Man has taken the pipa in unprecedented directions, performing with orchestras and chamber groups like the Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Rider. She has proven that it can be a concert instrument every bit as expressive as its Western counterparts.

While she can deliver the meditative, mournful sound for which the instrument is best known, Wu Man has shown it to be much more versatile, drawing a host of other nuanced timbres from it and achieving surprising speed and punch.

“I’ve tried to change the image of the instrument,” she said from her home in Carlsbad, Calif. “Could it do much more than people think?”

After immigrating to the United States in 1990, the ever-adventurous musician was always on the lookout for new, unusual challenges. When Ma approached her about joining the cross-genre Silk Road Ensemble, she leaped at the chance.

“First of all, Yo-Yo Ma wanted to do it? Of course,” she said. “And secondly, this was exactly what I was looking for, exactly my goal of wanting to expand my pipa repertoire and to see how my instrument could be more visible to people outside Chinese society.”

Beyond simply raising her visibility, she said, the group has allowed her to perform with an array of other musicians — one of her passions — and it has improved her playing in ways that could not have foreseen.

“Ten years ago, I may [have] been a good musician, but now I feel I’m better person, a better musician and I have a wider knowledge of what it means to be a musician,” she said.

Chicago is the second stop on a three-city Silk Road Ensemble tour that will feature two world premieres: “Play­list for an Extreme Occasion” by American jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and “Sacred Signs” by Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky.

The latter work is a 55-minute concerto for the 13 members of the ensemble, with one or two of the players spotlighted in each of its 10 movements but the last, which showcases the entire group. The ninth section, “In the Dance,” is devoted to Wu Man.

“I have known the musicians for 12 years, and it was very important to try to personalize the individual parts in the piece,” Yanov-Yanovsky, who has written several other pieces for the Silk Road Ensemble, said in an e-mail.

“Sacred Signs,” first performed Sept. 30 at the Carolina Performing Arts’ festival, “The Rite of Spring at 100,” was inspired by the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s once-radical ballet.

“I do not quote from ‘The Rite’ directly,” Yanov-Yanovsky said. “But the piece does make use of its compositional and structural principles, its types of motion and textures.”

Kyle MacMillan is a free-lance writer and critic.



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