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Movie-goers at Saturday’s (July 9) Landmark Hillcrest 7:00 p.m. screening of the recently released “Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” received an unexpected bonus. After the credits rolled, the Chinese virtuoso pipa performer Wu Man—one of the main players in Morgan Neville’s moving documentary—came to the front of the theater to perform and talk about her experiences with the film and with the Silk Road Ensemble.

Wu Man [photo (c) Stephen Kahn]

Wu Man [photo (c) Stephen Kahn]

While the Landmark staff attempted to solve some technical problems with the sound system, Wu Man played one of her signature Chinese solos, “White Snow in the Sunlight,” a spirited piece that gave her ample opportunity to display her deft technique with this lute-like instrument that migrated from Persia to China some 2,000 years ago.

Sameer Patel [photo (c) Arielle Doneson]

Sameer Patel [photo (c) Arielle Doneson]

Following her performance, San Diego Symphony Assistant Conductor Sameer Patel moderated a Q andA session, for which the sizable audience remained and in which they participated eagerly. Wu Man explained that she was one of the founding members of the Silk Road Ensemble, a group of virtuoso musicians from significantly different world musical traditions that Ma began assembling in 2000 to fuse or interweave the musical cultures of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

This ensemble has recorded and toured the globe extensively, including a October 2013 performance—without Ma, however—for the La Jolla Music Society in Sherwood Auditorium. At this concert local audiences were introduced to Cristina Pato, the impressive Galician bagpipe (called the gaita) player and to Kayhan Kalhor, the Iranian spike fiddle expert (also known as the kamancheh). Each of these musicians figured prominently in the documentary: Cristina for the exuberance of her persona and Kalhor for the political interference of the Iranian regime, which still forbids him to return to his native country and perform.

Although Wu Man did not appear in the 2013 La Jolla concert, she has played for the Carlsbad Music Festival in May 2014 and soloed in Zhao Jiping’s Second Pipa Concerto with the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Jahja Ling in February 2014. Since she has recently settled in San Diego County, she made the perfect choice to speak for Neville’s film.

Although some cultural purists question the premise of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and Ma himself raised this issue briefly in the documentary, Wu Man maintained that when musicians of differing cultures work together, they can discover unexpected congruences.

“When I hear an Indian or Persian melody that I think I recognize and ask the musician playing it if is indeed Chinese, they quickly explain it is from their own tradition.”

And the Silk Road project has brought to light obscure musical traditions such as a family of performers in a remote part of China that Wu Man was able to bring to perform in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. In the documentary, these antic musicians describe their traditional music as “the original Chinese rock and roll.” Wu Man noted that while few people in China were aware of this tradition, once the family appeared in New York, they returned to China as heroes.

“Music of Strangers” opened in San Diego a week ago and is currently showing in Landmark Hillcrest’s main theater. For those who love music, this film is itself a journey that will not only enlighten, but will touch the heart in ways both expected and unexpected.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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