I had a conversation with a colleague from our ’08 artist roster last week in which he remarked how Rush Hour is one of the few musical organizations he plays with that is willing to experiment with projects a little “outside the box.” Tuesday’s program, an East-West fusion, might fall into that category. After he played a traditional solo program for pipa with us last year, Yang Wei expressed an interest in – no, a fervor for – collaborating in chamber music from the Western canon. He, Brant Taylor and I spent some time over the winter months thinking about what might work for our respective instruments together.
Of course, J.S. Bach came to mind immediately. His music has been transcribed for so many combinations that an arrangement of the Two Part Invention No. 6 (written originally for Bach’s keyboard students) for cello and pipa is a natural. My thoughts then turned to Beethoven’s Op. 11 piano trio – written originally for clarinet, cello and piano and arranged (by Beethoven himself) for violin, cello and piano. Here we have three “stringed” instruments: one is plucked to make sound (the pipa), another’s strings (the cello) are bowed (and plucked on occasion). The third has the most strings, and its sound is made by a hammer’s striking from deep inside the case! Each brings its unique timbre to the trio and contributes to an overall unified sound. Beethoven was riding the crest of a celebrated career as a piano virtuoso when this piece was written, and his compositional work was supported by royalty. The piano itself was evolving as an instrument – from the “fortepiano” (a descendent of the Baroque harpsichord) to the very beginnings of the modern grand piano we know today. The cello remained the same from then to now. And the pipa was likely entertaining and soothing members of the Emperor’s court in China, far away from Vienna, the 19th century capital of European music.
One might find it curious or remarkable to hear this combination of instruments. For me, it affirms once again the power of music to transcend time and geography. And in the end, Beethoven’s music continues to communicate the deeply human qualities each of us can identify with.
It has been a pleasure for Brant and me to work with Yang Wei and to witness his joy at adding this music to his vast repertoire. Here are a few of his own thoughts:
“Beethoven wrote this piece [Piano Trio No. 4 in B-Flat Major, Op. 11] about 200 years ago. At that time, the pipa had already been developed in the ancient world, and had existed in its present form in China. At the time that Beethoven wrote and developed his music, travel and commerce were limited in the western parts of Europe, and it is somewhat doubtful if the great composer himself had seen or was familiar with the pipa. 200 years later, I interpret his moving piece by playing it on my pipa with piano and cello. The piano and the cello give the music its own unique and emotional depth, complementing the pipa. The wonderful, delicate cascading effect of the pipa adds to the musical enhancement of the melodies. If Beethoven ever knew about this, I believe he would have been as happy and excited about this beautiful combination as I am now!”
– Deborah Sobol