The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival explores Asian influence

Lin Ma is a master of the pipa, a four-string Chinese musical instrument that draws comparisons to the lute. Publicity image Lin Ma is a master of the pipa, a four-string Chinese musical instrument that draws comparisons to the lute. Publicity image

Though beloved by some, chamber music enjoyed its heyday in the 18th century but is less popular today, with the average person possibly knowing little about the classical style beyond its name.

Tim Summers has devoted his career to changing that. Co-founding the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival in 2000 alongside Raphael Bell, (when they were both young musicians fresh out of Juilliard), Summers now has nearly two decades of experience under his belt—and that’s crucial to the innovative concepts of 2018’s program.

“While there is never really a theme to the festival, there is always a trajectory,” says Summers. 2018’s trajectory? Asian influences on chamber music. Many attribute solely European influences to the genre, but Summers wants to highlight Eastern contributions to “present some of the contacts that classical music has made with Asia over the past century.”

Summers first became aware of these contacts when he realized how often he was traveling to Asian cities and countries to play music—Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. On one trip, he met with Keith Lipson, a clarinet player for the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and one of the performers in this year’s festival. “His wife is a pipa player…and he was learning traditional [Asian] instruments,” Summers says. “There was an element of exchange which was not merely casual.”

Last October’s meeting with Lipson inspired Summers to pursue what he dubs the “European/Asian/American exchange.” He spent the ensuing months studying the intersection of chamber music from all three cultures and the media in which it appeared—including world-famous movies with Asian roots like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Japanese legend Toru Takemitsu and the more contemporary Chinese composer Tan Dun created music for the respective films, and works from both musicians will be featured in the festival, alongside European selections from household-name composers like Bach and Brahms.

Summers attributes big themes to the pieces, describing the music as being about “harmony, voice and nature, and materials and structure.” Though tying together three separate world forces, he wants the experience to transcend geography. “Towards the end of the festival, the idea of location disappears somewhat,” he says.

Location may vanish, but confusion about certain terminology may persist. Lipson’s wife’s pipa, for example. Though it’s an instrument central to Chinese music and has been for centuries, it’s unlikely to appear in a Western ensemble. As one of its masters, Lin Ma is among the most qualified people alive to talk about the pipa—and she also happens to be one of the festival’s featured musicians.

Ma, who grew up in China, has multiple names for her instrument of choice, including “Chinese lute” and “king of the plucked string,” describing it as a “half-pear-shaped instrument” with four strings. Her love affair with the pipa began when she was just three-and-a-half years old, and although she was dwarfed by the instrument’s size, she began playing the pipa as soon as she was physically able, practicing “six to eight hours a day,” even as a child. “I didn’t have time to play with other children, because I had to practice my instrument,” Ma says.

The enormous amount of practice paid off when Ma attended the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the “top music school in China,” and got her master’s in pipa performing. It was a formative time, she says, not in the least because she studied under pipa master Guanghua Li. “He gave me more space to form my individual performing style, which is essential to my playing,” Ma says.

Ma will perform three times total at CCMF, but she said she’s most excited for what she’ll play on September 16 at PVCC’s Dickinson Theatre: a contemporary piece by Tan Dun. “It’s called Ghost Opera,” Ma says, adding that it evokes “water, stone, paper, and metal” imagery. “This is a very interesting and creative piece, not like the traditional music style of the pipa.”

Summers explains that the decision to bring Ma onboard, like many decisions made for this year’s festival, resulted from that first meeting with Lipson in Beijing. The original plan was to bring Lipson and his wife, but due to visa issues, it became clear that both could not attend. Lipson’s wife recommended Ma, who was already in New York at the time. “She is a wonderful musician, and we look forward to working with her,” says Summers.

The festival, among other things, is a way to see “what we can find between us,” says Summers. He expects the cultural exchange to be a valuable one. “I think the idea was not to give the impression that we had something to teach about Asia,” Summers says. “Only something to present and explore.”

Lin Ma appears at the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival

September 10 at Live Arts

September 13 at Old Cabell Hall

September 16 at Dickinson Theatre

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