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2020 chamber fest puts spotlight on Chinese pipa

2020 chamber fest puts spotlight on Chinese pipa

It’s been more than a dozen years since audiences at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival first heard the ancient Chinese lute the pipa.

But at this year’s festival, which kicks off on Sunday, March 1, the pipa takes on a starring role. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, the festival’s host, will premiere “Four Inscapes,” a work centered on pipa that it commissioned from Australian composer Ross Edwards.

The Edwards piece, which also features percussion, violin, cello and flute, was supposed to have been performed at last year’s festival by Wu Man, who introduced Tucson to the Chinese lute at the 2006 festival. But the premiere was pushed back a year.

“Four Inscapes” will be performed by award-winning pipa player Yang Jin.

“It is my first time to Tucson, but I knew Tucson Chamber Music Festival before,” she said in an email interview. “I was recommended by the outstanding master Gao Hong. Gao Hong, Wu Man and I are all alumni of the Central Conservatory of Music, and they are all my distinguished predecessors.”

“It is exciting to bring back the pipa and especially to have a commission by Ross Edwards. His music has always represented a unique and beautiful synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions, so I am expecting something quite wonderful,” said the festival’s longtime curator and coordinator Peter Rejto, who also lives in Australia. “Ross had previously written for guitar but this is his first excursion into writing for pipa.”

Yang, 38, who has lived in the United States since 2013, has performed pipa with orchestras and in chamber settings around the country and has played a role in Yo-Yo Ma’s esteemed Silkroad ensemble. In addition to “Four Inscapes,” she also will perform “Ambush From All Sides,” which she called a “masterpiece and the most popular pipa solo in Chinese classical music.”

“It depicts the glorious victory of Liubang in the decisive battle in 202 B.C. at Gaixia between the two armies of Chu and Han,” said Yang, who lives in Pittsburgh. “A wide variety of performance techniques of pipa are brought into full play in this piece that produce a majestic and passionate narrative, which is sharp in artistic image, exalting in melody and ultimately thrilling. The difficulty of the piece ensures that it is normally played by virtuosos.”

Yang, who has been playing pipa since she was 9, first played the piece when she was 12 attending China’s Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

“Ambush” has since become one of her favorite traditional solo works “and every time I played in the United States, the audience was crazy about it.”

The 2020 festival also includes Philip Glass’s “Sound of a Voice” for violin, cello, flute and percussion on Tuesday, March 3; and Jeffery Cotton’s “Meditation, Rhapsody, and Bacchanal” on Wednesday, March 4. Arizona Friends had commissioned the Cotton piece in 2004 and premiered it at the 2005 festival with violinist Joseph Lin and percussionist Svetoslav Stoyanov. On Wednesday, violinist Yura Lee and percussionist Matthew Strauss will perform it.

Strauss, who teaches at Rice University in Houston and is the associate principal percussionist with the Houston Symphony, will perform on the Glass and Cotton works, using a handful of instruments including castanets, woodblocks, cowbells, wind chimes and the Middle Eastern doumbek.

“I had to learn special techniques to play that drum on this festival,” he said, explaining that you position the hourglass-shaped drum with the head vertical, perpendicular to the floor, and control the timbres with various finger techniques.

Rejto said the 2020 festival seemed a perfect time to revisit Cotton’s piece. Cotton, who attended the 2005 premiere, died in 2013 at the age of 55.

“The final movement features a large Bulgarian drum. The last time around the audience went wild at the conclusion,” Rejto said.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

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