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Pipa virtuoso brings sounds of China to Columbia

The pipa is steeped in history and tradition.

In China.

Here, little is known about the pipa beyond that it is a stringed, lutelike instrument.

This week, music audiences will have two opportunities to get familiar with the pipa as Wu Man, a pipa virtuoso, performs with the South Carolina Philharmonic on Thursday and at the Southern Exposure New Music Series on Friday.

"The tradition with the pipa is never with a huge orchestra," she said.

Concertgoers are accustomed to hearing solo piano, cello, violin or voice with an orchestra. The pipa will be foreign, like an amplified guitar.

"I think for me and the conductor, it's quite a challenge," said the 45-year-old native of China who teaches at the University of California-San Diego. "It's like you've found a new color in the music language.

"This is a very new solo instrument."

Wu, a Grammy Award-winning performer, is like an ambassador for the pipa - and Chinese music. The four-stringed instrument, with a pear-shaped base, has been played for more than 2,000 years in China. But its existence in the Western world is relatively unknown, possibly because the sound is a challenge for composers to integrate.

Tan Dun, who wrote the score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," composed "Pipa Concerto" with Wu in mind. She'll perform it accompanied by the philharmonic. Wu and Tan were schoolmates in Beijing, and the two talked through the composition.

"We talked about tuning, combining the pipa sound with strings," she said. "Basically, I'm involved with the composer."

Wu also has worked with established composers such as Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Lou Harrison to make contemporary works for the pipa. She also has worked with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the stringed Kronos Quartet.

She said making new music hasn't been difficult, but she always has to be aware of what instruments to pair with the pipa, which uses tremelo to give notes beautiful warmth.

"This is a very Chinese voice, this instrument," Wu said. "It's just I have to be careful of the instrument's sound."

Bringing the pipa's sound to new ears fits the purpose of Southern Exposure. She'll play solo works at the USC School of Music on Friday for the second performance of Southern Exposure's season. She'll also lecture at the school Wednesday afternoon.

John Fitz Rogers, a USC associate professor of composition and artistic director of the series, said Wu is a champion for commissioning new work.

"Southern Exposure has always been about the idea that there's a ton of contemporary music from all vantage points," he said. "She's been at the forefront in popularizing Chinese music."

By working with composers, Wu, even if inadvertently, also has helped to debunk an annoying genre tag: world music. Rogers, who said the goal of Southern Exposure is to break down music labels, is happy to get the word out.

"All music is ethno music if you think about it," he said. "I think these distinctions, these borders are breaking down.

"Great music is great music, no matter who makes it or where it comes from."

This week Wu will play elegant Chinese-influenced music.

In South Carolina.

"Of course, the Chinese traditional music is a part of me," she said. "I just love my instrument, and I love Chinese music.

"Basically, I love music. I just try to do what I love to do."

IF YOU GO

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.

TICKETS: $12 to $50

PROGRAM: Aaron Copland, "Fanfare for the Common Man"; John Fitz Rogers, "Verge"; Tan Dun, "Pipa Concerto" featuring Wu Man; and Modest Mussorgsky (arr. Ravel), "Pictures at an Exhibition"

INFORMATION: (803) 251-2222 or www.scphilharmonic.com

IF YOU GO

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: USC School of Music Recital Hall, 813 Assembly St.

TICKETS: Free

INFORMATION: (803) 777-4280

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