Symphony Center has long been a haven for violin virtuosos like Joshua Bell or Anne-Sophie Mutter, or premier pianists like Lang Lang or Evgeny Kissin. But in recent years, virtuoso performers on decidedly more unusual instruments have begun frequenting Symphony Center and other leading concert halls worldwide.
Performers like Béla Fleck on banjo and Howard Levy on harmonica are well-known for playing jazz, pop, classical and other music far removed from their instruments’ humble folk origins. Fleck once referred to himself and other masters of obscure folk instruments as the “odd instrument club.” He was referring to musicians such as Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Swiss alphorn soloist Eliana Burki and jazz musician Steve Turre, who often plays conch shells in concert.
Of course, “odd” is a relative term. What is “odd” to Americans may be quite commonplace in other cultures, and vice versa.
Some of the instruments featured at Symphony Center this season are classical folk instruments with hundreds, or even thousands, of years of history in their respective countries: the pipa and sheng of China, and the kamancheh, or Persian spike fiddle, used in the folk music of Iran.
And one instrument was popular with classical musicians in Europe, especially in Italy, during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it is known more as a folk instrument in America, where it is a familiar member of country and bluegrass bands: the mandolin.
Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, has elevated the instrument from its folk status in this country, showing that it is capable of the most sophisticated jazz improvisations as well as the subtle nuances of classical music.
Thile became interested in the mandolin at an exceptionally early age. “I just loved the way it looked and I loved the way the mandolin sounded,” he said in an interview with the magazine Fretboard Journal. “And it was small. I was small; I was just a little kid when I started, and every little thing about it was just so great, so magical and perfect. And so I started begging my parents more when I was 2. … Finally, when I was 5, a buddy of theirs just gave one to me, and so all of a sudden, I had a mandolin, and I never looked back.”
Thile began performing with “newgrass” band Nickel Creek just a few years later. He ultimately released three albums with the band, sold 2 million records and was awarded a Grammy in 2002.
Today, Thile is a member of the Punch Brothers, and frequently performs as a duo with double bassist Edgar Meyer (they will appear Oct. 17 at Symphony Center in an SCP Special Concert). The two recently released their second album together, “Bass & Mandolin” on Nonesuch.
In 2011, Thile and Meyer joined Yo-Yo Ma to record “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” a disc of bluegrass-inspired music that won a Grammy Award for best folk album.
And in 2013, Thile released an album of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Here he is playing the “Presto” movement from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor.
The Silk Road Ensemble, which will perform March 6 at Symphony Center as part of its 15th anniversary tour, also counts itself as members of the “odd instruments club.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 to encourage collaboration between Western classical musicians and masters of other musical traditions. In the process, he brought many outstanding virtuosos from Eurasian countries to the world’s attention. Many of these musicians play instruments, including the pipa, kamancheh and sheng, that are little-known in the West. Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble will perform at Symphony Center on March 6, 2015.
Wu Man, pipa
The pipa has been a popular instrument in China since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch on. Thanks in large part to the amazing artistry of Wu Man, this short-necked lute-like instrument can now be heard in the world’s concert halls. The pluck-playing technique is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and virtuosic effects, including rolls and percussive slaps.
Wu Man, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, had her path as a musician chosen for her early in life. Her parents decided that she would learn to play the elegant instrument that featured so prominently in Chinese poems and paintings. “I was 9 years old, and I already knew that pipa will be, or music will be, my career,” Wu Man explained in a Silk Road Project video.
Wu Man became the first person to receive a master’s degree in pipa performance from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Named Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, she frequently plays with the Kronos Quartet.
Kayhan Kalhor, kamancheh
One of the original members of the Silk Road Ensemble, Kayhan Kalhor is an internationally acclaimed virtuoso of the kamancheh. The Persian spike fiddle has a long conical neck, a round wooden body covered with animal skin and a spike protruding from its base. The kamancheh rests on the player’s knee or on the ground and is swiveled on the spike to meet the bow as it is played.
A native of Tehran, Kalhor started playing the violin at age 5. He decided to switch instruments after hearing the sound of the kamancheh. “There was this old master, whom I still admire very much, Ostad Bahari. I saw him on TV every now and then, and his style, the sound of the instrument, caught my attention,” Kalhor said in a recent Silk Road Project video. “I became really fascinated with the sound.”
He has appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de Lyon, and presented a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. He is co-founder of the renowned traditional ensembles Dastan, Ghazal: Persian & Indian Improvisations and Masters of Persian Music.
Wu Tong, sheng
The sheng is a mouth organ with a blowpipe and at least 17 bamboo or metal pipes extending from the top of the bowl. Today, it is used primarily to play Chinese classical music, but some innovative musicians, including sheng virtuoso Wu Tong, have started using the instrument in popular music. The sheng’s symmetrical pipes are said to represent the folded wings of the mythical phoenix. Inside the bowl, each pipe has a hole covered by a metal tongue that interrupts the air current to produce a clear, metallic sound. Western harmonicas, reed organs and concertinas use the same basic acoustical principles.
A member of the Silk Road Ensemble since its founding, Wu Tong started playing the sheng when he was 5 years old. In an interview with the newspaper China Daily, he confessed that he did not find the sheng interesting until he was 11, when he had his first taste of improvisation on the instrument.
He later formed the rock band Again with several friends. It was one of the first bands to combine Western rock music with elements of traditional Chinese culture. The group tuned their electric guitars according to Chinese scales, and also played Chinese instruments like the pipa. For their lyrics, the band quoted from ancient Chinese poetry. “At that time I was keen about breaking the stereotype of Chinese music’s mild temperament, and rock ‘n’ roll provided me very valuable experience,” Wu told China Daily in 2011.
In 2013, he premiered Zhao Lin’s Duo, a double concerto written for him and Yo-Yo Ma.
Louise Burton writes for Classicalite and other arts-related sites and publications.