Recognized as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and leading ambassador of Chinese music, Grammy Award-nominated musician Wu Man has carved out a career as a soloist, educator and composer giving her lute-like instrument—which has a history of over 2,000 years in China—a new role in both traditional and contemporary music. Through numerous concert tours Wu Man has premiered hundreds of new works for the pipa, while spearheading multimedia projects to both preserve and create awareness of China’s ancient musical traditions. Her adventurous spirit and virtuosity have led to collaborations across artistic disciplines allowing Wu Man to reach wider audiences as she works to break through cultural and musical borders. Wu Man’s efforts were recognized when she was named Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, the first time this prestigious award has been bestowed on a player of a non-Western instrument.
Having been brought up in the Pudong School of pipa playing, one of the most prestigious classical styles of Imperial China, Wu Man is now recognized as an outstanding exponent of the traditional repertoire as well as a leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music by today’s most prominent composers such as Tan Dun, Philip Glass, the late Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and many others. She has been featured on PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and in 2011 she was the first Chinese musician featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. She was awarded The Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University in 1998, and was the first Chinese traditional musician to receive The United States Artist Fellowship in 2008. She is also the first artist from China to perform at the White House.
During the 2015-16 season, Wu Man embarks on an extensive North American tour with longtime friends and colleagues, the Shanghai Quartet. The tour will take them to 12 cities across the U.S., with a final concert at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Wu Man travels to Brussels and Geneva to collaborate with Uyghur singer Sanubar Tursun for performances presented by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, an interregional music and arts education program. Orchestral highlights of the season include a performance of Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2, which was written for her, with the West Michigan Symphony, as well as performances with the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony for their Chinese New Year celebrations.
Wu Man has performed as soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Austrian ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Moscow Soloists, Nashville Symphony, German NDR and RSO Radio Symphony Orchestras, New Music Group, New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Her touring has taken her to the major music halls of the world including Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Great Hall in Moscow, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Opera Bastille, Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls in London and the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. She has performed at many international festivals including the Auckland Arts Festival, Bang on a Can Festival, BBC Proms, Festival d’Automne in Paris, Festival de Radio France et Montpellier, Hong Kong Arts Festival, La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, Lincoln Center Festival, Luminato, Mozart Festival in Vienna, NextWave!/BAM, Ravinia Festival, Silk Road Festival, Sydney Festival, Tanglewood, Wien Modern, WOMAD Festival, and the Yatsugatake Kogen Festival in Japan. Wu Man continually collaborates with some of the most distinguished musicians and conductors performing today, such as Yuri Bashmet, Dennis Russell Davies, Christoph Eschenbach, Gunther Herbig, Cho-Liang Lin, Yo-Yo Ma, David Robertson, Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Zinman.
Among her most fruitful collaborations is with Kronos Quartet, with whom Wu Man began collaborating in the early 1990s. They premiered their first project together, Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1995. The work was recorded and released on Nonesuch in 1997. That same year, Nonesuch released Kronos Quartet’s Early Music, which featured Wu Man on zhong ruan and da ruan (string instruments related to pipa) in John Dowland’s Lachrymæ Antiquæ. In 2005, Nonesuch released You’ve Stolen My Heart, an homage to the composer of classic Bollywood songs, Rahul Dev Burman, featuring the Quartet, Wu Man, singer Asha Bhosle and tabla player Zakir Hussain. The CD was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. A recent project with Kronos is A Chinese Home, a multimedia work conceived by Wu Man, Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington, and theater director Chen Shi-Zheng, which received its premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in 2009. She also participated in the Quartet’s 40th Anniversary celebration concerts at Cal Performances in Berkeley, CA and at Carnegie Hall.
As a principal musician in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, Wu Man has performed throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia with the Silk Road Ensemble. She has also recorded five albums with the group, including Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (2002), Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (2005), New Impossibilities (2007), and the CD/DVD A Playlist Without Borders/Live from Tanglewood (2013) on Sony Classical, as well as Off the Map (2009) on World Village.
Adamant that the pipa does not become marginalized as only appropriate for Chinese music, Wu Man strives to develop a place for the pipa in all art forms. Projects she has initiated have resulted in the pipa finding a place in new solo and quartet works, concertos, opera, chamber, electronic, and jazz music as well as in theater productions, film, dance and collaborations with visual artists including calligraphers and painters. Wu Man’s role has developed beyond pipa performance to encompass singing, dancing, composing and curating new works. She has premiered works by Chinese composers including Zhao Jiping, Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi. Other notable projects include Orion: China, co-written with Philip Glass for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and recorded the following year; and Blue and Green, an original composition that she premiered with The Knights. Recent projects have seen Wu Man rediscover, embrace and showcase the musical traditions of her homeland, projects she has dubbed “Wu Man’s Return to the East.” In 2009 Wu Man was asked to curate two concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival celebrating Chinese culture. Wu Man and the artists she brought to New York from rural China for the festival also took part in two free neighborhood concerts and a concert presented by the Orange County Performing Arts Society in Costa Mesa. In August 2012 Wu Man released a documentary DVD titled Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China as part of her ongoing “Return to the East” project. In the film, Wu Man travels to little-explored regions of China to uncover ancient musical traditions that have rarely been documented before.
Wu Man boasts a discography of over 40 albums including Traditions and Transformations:Soundsof Silk Road Chicago, which features her Grammy Award–nominated performance of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as a Grammy-nominated recording of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists on Onyx Classics. In May 2012, Wu Man released her Independent Music Award–nominated CD/DVD Borderlands, which traces the history of the pipa in China. It is the final installment of the acclaimed ten-volume “Music of Central Asia” ethnographic series produced by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage. In Wu Man and Friends, released on Traditional Crossroads in 2005, Wu Man blends Chinese, Ukrainian, Ugandan, and Appalachian traditional music, performing alongside musicians from these regions. Her solo recordings include Pipa: From a Distance, released on Naxos World Music in 2003, and Immeasurable Light, released on Traditional Crossroads in 2010. Her most recent albums, released by Wind Music, include Elegant Pipa Classics, which combines traditional pipa repertoire with modern compositions, and the Grammy-nominated Our World in Song, a recording of familiar folk songs from around the world arranged by Wu Man herself, with Grammy Award-winning Hawaiian instrumentalist Daniel Ho and Cuban percussionist Luis Conte.
Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied with Lin Shicheng, Kuang Yuzhong, Chen Zemin, and Liu Dehai at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa. Accepted into the conservatory at age 13, Wu Man’s audition was covered by national newspapers and she was hailed as a child prodigy, becoming a nationally recognized role model for young pipa players. She subsequently received first prize in the First National Music Performance Competition among many other awards, and she participated in many premieres of works by a new generation of Chinese composers. Wu Man’s first exposure to western classical music came in 1979 when she saw Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing in Beijing. In 1980 she participated in an open master class with violinist Isaac Stern and in 1985 she made her first visit to the United States as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe. Wu Man moved to the U.S. in 1990 and currently resides with her husband and son in California. For more information on Wu Man, please visit www.wumanpipa.org or her artist page on Facebook.
Wu Man last performed with La Jolla Music Society in SummerFest 2015