A Melding of Strings and Styles at Ojai Music Festival

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 13, 2023
Wu Man (left) and several of her fellow Silk Road Ensemble members have been tapped to perform at the Ojai Festival (photo by Max Whittaker)

If the Music Academy’s eight-week summer festival (see separate feature) is the main course on the current classical calendar, the equally venerable Ojai Music Festival is a savory and sumptuous appetizer as the already contemporary boundary-pushing fest takes a further step afield with the highly-decorated roots music superstar Rhiannon Giddens as 2023’s musical director and nearly ubiquitous performer for the June 8-11 weekend affair. 

The banjo-wielding multi-hyphenate singer-instrumentalist-composer-archivist Giddens serves up a smorgasbord of selections and has tapped a number of her colleagues in the Silk Road Ensemble, including Chinese pipa master Wu Man and Iranian-born kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, plus Ojai vets Stephen Schick (himself a former musical director at Ojai), the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, and the quickly-emerging Attacca Quartet (both as ensemble and individuals). 

Wu Man and the Attaca will team up to perform Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera, the pioneering East-meets-West piece the pipa player has been performing with the Kronos Quartet for more than 20 years. The work evokes the spirits of Bach and Shakespeare – in the manner of ancient folk traditions and traditional shamanistic Chinese music, complete with elements of paper, water, stone, metal and vocals. This new production, created especially for Ojai, incorporates dance via dancer/choreographer PeiJu Chien-Pott and is reimagined through Jon Reimer’s direction. 

“My singing and my pipa part is the ghost, and echo with the quartet, but now the dancer is like a shadow and with the lighting design it brings a new dimension to the piece, and with these musicians who are new to me, it’s very exciting for me,” she said. 

Man is also eagerly anticipating her other appearances at Ojai, which include collaborating with Giddens on her own pipa-and-banjo piece based on Chinese folk tunes with Giddens also singing in Chinese. 

“We’re always talking about how similar the pipa and banjo are, at least the sound and color the way we play,” she said about the four-string instruments, with the Chinese pipa dating back more than 2,000 years. “So I wrote this piece for us.” 

Wu Man will also perform two other duos, both composed for her by UC San Diego colleague Lei Liang: “vis-à-vis” with Schick, and “Mother’s Songs”with Attaca violist Nathan Schram. “Pipa with the viola has never happened before, those two instruments, which should be very interesting,” she said with a laugh. Man will also perform a selection of solo pipa pieces on Sunday morning’s Early Music program. She will be world premiering work based on seven scholarly translations drawn from 25 manuscripts – part of a cache of rare documents dating to the ninth century and discovered in the Dunhuang “Library” Caves in Central Asia. “Each tune is very short, maybe a minute and a half. But you can totally taste the music, which is a combination between Central Asia, European, and Chinese colors; a very different musical scale. It’s just amazing. I can’t wait to share with the audience and see what they think of this kind of music.”

Which probably holds true for both audience and performer for the full four-day festival. Visit www.ojaifestival.org for details and tickets.  


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