I wasn’t sure what to expect from Friday’s performance of Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band. I knew that Wu Man is an acknowledged world leader on the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument that’s cousin to the lute (or, as she pointed out in the course of the concert, the banjo, with its metallic twanging tone); she has collaborated with ensembles all over the world, from the Kronos Quartet to the New York Philharmonic. I knew that some years ago, she traveled around China researching traditional musicians, and that the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, a family group from a region of northern China, was one of the ensembles she encountered. I was also intrigued by the chance to see shadow puppets.
But whatever I may have had in mind when I sat down in Lisner Auditorium, I was not remotely prepared, after Wu Man’s introductory solos and remarks, for the blast of sheer energy, delight and noise emanating from eight predominantly elderly men who took the stage like a benevolent cyclone, playing a range of stringed instruments and percussion, and singing, and sometimes raucously shouting, at the top of their lungs.
“They’re something else, aren’t they?” Wu Man observed. The audience, small but electrified, applauded.
The group, originally known as the Zhang Family Band and only recently open to non-Zhang members, has been touring around Shaanxi province, in northern China, for three centuries; its leader, Zhang Ximin, represents the 11th generation of his family to keep up the tradition. When this kind of group starts to tour internationally, it risks becoming groomed into a hokey, telegenic version of itself, but this ensemble, while it certainly had a cute factor, maintained its identity as local farmers and conveyed something that felt both authentic and distinctive: a glimpse into a genuine tradition.
Zhang was among the most animated, extending his limbs jaggedly while leading the shouts with relish, and playing a yueqin, another member of the lute family with, in this case, an octagonal body, like a battered stop sign. Another Zhang relative played a bench — a glorified sawhorse that swayed alarmingly under his weight — which he had, Wu Man explained, insisted on bringing from home, in a pink case made for it by his wife, and on which he now squatted, now pounding with what appeared to be a brick. The puppets turned out to be present for only two numbers — including a battle scene between mounted warriors and a pipa improvisation accompanying vignettes of individuals and an unpredictable tiger — in the engaging evening. Other numbers ranged from songs about peasant life to what Wu Man described as a “blues-type” song that was billed as an ode to battle sung by a Tang general, Qin Qiong.
Beguiling as the group was, it took a lot of heavy lifting from Wu Man to pull the whole evening into such an effective performance. Her narrations, informative and interesting and conversational without being overly didactic, provided context and a guide to a tradition that I imagine was not familiar even to some of the Chinese members of the audience. And her elegant solos were an aural contrast — deliberately so — to the raw songs of the Huayin band. One unifying subtext of the evening was a narrative of the pipa and its development, including two solos that are staples of the pipa repertoire, the martial “Ambush from Ten Sides” and the lyrical “Dance of Yi” by Wang Hui Ran, one of the earliest notated works for the pipa, dating from the 1960s.
For a classical music critic, the evening represented a kind of cultural tourism; an ethnomusicologist could offer a more informed perspective on what the night represented in the context of Chinese traditional music as a whole. But the performance did hold some notable lessons for how to present repertoire to an audience that’s unfamiliar with its traditions — something that is very relevant to classical music indeed. The bottom line is that energy and joy and commitment go a long way toward interesting people in things they don’t know, regardless of what you’re offering. It was a marvelous night and I wish more people had gotten to see it.
Wu Man will return on April 19 with the Kronos Quartet in “A Chinese Home,” a multimedia project that offers a cross-section of three centuries of Chinese cultural history, also courtesy of Washington Performing Arts.