How does a new work make the leap from that all-important “light bulb” moment to grand opening night? Commissioning is something of a dark art, a complex brew of orchestras, funders, composers, and soloists. Doubly so, if you’re creating a work for two instruments that are rarely paired and hail from entirely different traditions. In the case of A Happy Excursion, Chinese composer Zhao Lin’s double concerto for cello and pipa (the traditional pear-shaped instrument sometimes called the Chinese lute), it involves a unique set of coincidences and connections reaching back decades.
The genesis of the work—which the New York Philharmonic co-commissioned with the Beijing Music Festival and Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra—began with pipa virtuoso Wu Man. “I had the idea and asked Yo-Yo Ma if he was interested,” she explains. “I said, ‘Before I retire, I really want to have a pipa and cello concerto, and it would be an honor to play with you.’ Yo-Yo said, ‘Yes, let’s find the time!’ Eight years later, here we are.”
As composer, she suggested Zhao Lin, a Beijing Conservatory schoolmate and friend who had previously composed Red Lantern for Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet, a work based on his father Zhao Jiping’s music for the film Raise the Red Lantern. “I went back to China and convinced him,” she recalls. “The next step was to get orchestras on board, and Yo-Yo and my manager took the concerto to their contacts at orchestras in the US and China.”
That’s a lot of connections, right? But then, Wu Man is remarkably well connected. Born in Hangzhou, she started to play the liuqin, a smaller version of the pipa, at age nine, and in 1987 graduated with the Beijing Conservatory’s first master’s degree for a pipa player. By the 1990s she was an evangelist for extending her instrument beyond the bounds of traditional Chinese music, moving to the US to collaborate with artists like the Kronos Quartet and premiering Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, at Lincoln Center in 1997. Then, in 1998, she became a founding member of Silkroad. “I was looking for something different, so when Yo-Yo had this crazy idea, a mutual friend recommended we meet.”
Their initial exploration of cello and pipa in duet was a folk-song arrangement by Chinese composer Bright Sheng. “The first rehearsal was awful,” she laughs. “The colors were so different, so we started to change the way we play—I think Yo-Yo changed the bowing from the way he played Dvořák or Bach. Over 20 years, somehow we’ve found the best way.” Their instruments would be combined again, in another work by Sheng that the New York Philharmonic commissioned—a quadruple concerto for cello, piano, pipa, and sheng, which the Orchestra premiered, with Ma and Wu Man among the soloists, in 2003.
Enter Zhao Lin, who since 2004 has contributed several pieces to Silkroad. In 2013 he wrote Duo, a double concerto for cello and sheng (a Chinese, vertical-piped, reed instrument). “His music feels like you are in a magical land,” says conductor Long Yu. “It’s like the other musical language from the Gobi Desert, from the west land of China. Zhao Lin grew up in Xi’an, the oldest capital of China. His music has the color of this history. It’s a little bit like a Hollywood Western—a lot of passion but with a lot of heroic feelings.”
Wu Man recalls her input to the creative process, demonstrating her technique and the possibilities of her instrument. “When Zhao Lin wrote this piece, he had me and Yo-Yo in his mind: ‘I’m writing for you guys!’ he said.” When the soloists began working on it last year, the composer was on hand, paring back the orchestration in one or two places. Of the World Premiere, in Beijing, Wu Man recalls, “The Chinese audiences loved it!”
The Philharmonic came on board as a co-commissioner, keen to support Yo-Yo Ma and his artistic goals by bringing the piece to the US. That is why this month New Yorkers can experience what Ma describes as a work that seamlessly integrates pipa and cello in a musical narrative starting from, and evoking, ancient times. In his words, A Happy Excursion is “taking us on a whirlwind tour of our frenetic, out-of-control world of today, almost to the point of no return, but we are left with the possibility of redemption.”
Clive Paget is a freelance arts writer and critic, and editor-at-large for Australia’s Limelight Magazine. He was music-theater consultant at London’s National Theater, 2002–07, after spending ten years as a theater and opera director.