Classical Fusions at the Asia Society: The Knights With Wu Man

The Knights have been making waves with their blend of high musicianship, adventurous programming and youthful camaraderie on stage. This is all good, because classical music has needed an infusion of the latter two, and now there are wonderful conservatory trained ensembles updating both the repertoire and the presentation of classical music sprouting up all over the world, and bringing new audiences into the fold. Bravo for that.

I first heard about Wu Man through her work with the pioneering ensemble, The Kronos Quartet (quite possibly the progenitor of the above described new ensembles), and with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. It was through working with the Silk Road Project that the Jacobsen brothers, prime movers of The Knights met up with her, and as with other musicians that they have subsequently toured with, (Kayhan Kalhor springs to mind) they have interacted with her as friends, colleagues, and arrangers, as they gracefully integrate non-western sounds into their presentations.

The program that The Knights presented included Stravinsky, Debussy, Milhaud and two pieces for Wu Man to display her formidable chops on the Chinese lute-like Pipa. The first was Lou Harrison's "Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra" which I found to be delightful. Of the seven movements, I have started my video with "Bits and Pieces: Neapolitan," moving on to "Threnody for Richard Locke" and "Estampie."

Tonally, the Pipa reminds me of a banjo in timbre, with extremely high frets. It is a treat to watch Wu Man's hands while she plays the Pipa, in particular her "strumming" hand seems to swim like an ornamental goldfish over the strings, creating flowing sustains and vibratos on an otherwise percussive instrument.

The second piece was comprised of two songs, one traditional and one that Wu Man credits to her young son, who was humming it one day. The two pieces have been arranged by Colin Jacobsen and Lev Zhurbin in a lush and playful way, in places reminiscent of of Copland. In particular I enjoyed the sea of strings and the generous use of bass and cello, and the way that counterpoint was used to elasticize the simple melody. In the second piece, the percussion was the spice on the entire dish that ended, quite literally with a bang. Albeit one that resonated for several seconds.

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