SummerFest Artists Perform Live: Wu Man, Christopher O'Riley And Jimmy Lin
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days. Last week, we spoke about the start of the La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest with music director Jimmy Lin celebrating his 10th anniversary with the music festival. Today, we're very excited to present some of the visiting artists at SummerFest 2010. This annual chamber music festival gathers together world-renowned musicians, singers and composers. Now, their talents are often combined in unusual ways and the process of making music is demystified by a series of conversations with the artists, workshops and open rehearsals. So, in the spirit of the festival, we are presenting conversations and performances with SummerFest’s artists this morning. It’s a pleasure to introduce my guests. Cho-Liang Lin, Jimmy Lin, is the music director for SummerFest. Welcome back.
CAVANAUGH: Chinary Ung is an award-winning San Diego-based composer. Chinary, good morning.
CHINARY UNG (Musician/Composer): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Susan Ung is a violist and she performs many of her husband's compositions. Susan, hello.
SUSAN UNG (Musician): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Wu Man is a master of the Chinese instrument, the pipa, and we'll find more about that very soon. Thank you, Wu Man, for being here.
WU MAN (Musician): Thank you. Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And Christoper O’Riley is a pianist, known for his arrangements of contemporary artists such as Radiohead and Nirvana. He's also the host of the NPR show "From The Top." Christopher, good morning.
CHRISTOPHER O’RILEY (Musician): Good to be with you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jimmy, I want to start out by mentioning that the SummerFest Gala was Friday night. How did that go?
LIN: It was terrific. Got a little windy at the beginning of the dinner but the concert portion went great and I noticed there was a very tall guest who was quite keen to move to the keyboard side so he could see the performance of Christopher O’Riley and he looked really familiar but I say, who’s seven foot tall among the crowd, and it was Bill Walton.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. I figured that was going to be your punchline. That’s great. So it really went well for you.
LIN: It was a terrific event.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you all, you know, I know all of you have attended festivals, many, many music festivals and have attended SummerFest before. And what is the experience, Wu Man, of SummerFest like for you as a musician?
WU: It’s great to be at the hometown. Very close by and, oh, so terrific to work musicians with, you know, from all over the country I know. We met every – at the every different festival so that’s also – Of course, Jimmy is old friend of mine and way back I met him. He was a superstar in China when he first time came to China, visit us. So it’s like, you know, back to the family. It’s terrific.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Christopher, is this a sort of a laid back experience for you? Or is it challenging?
O’RILEY: Oh, hardly. Jimmy made my menu very full…
O’RILEY: …this week. That’s not to say that we don’t have a great time. I mean, great chamber music is all about playing with good friends and the spirit of that is absolutely in full force at La Jolla.
CAVANAUGH: What is that like? To be able, Susan, to play with people that you know and you’ve played with before. And perhaps the spirit of adventure is a little bit more in the air than it is in just, you know, a classical sort of symphony setting.
S. UNG: Well, some of the people that I saw at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, I had known before but never performed with before so – And, also, Chinary’s music is quite unusual in that everybody has to do multitasking and for the first time sometimes, and so it’s very much an exploratory and expanding experience, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Well, what is the multitasking that Susan is referring to, Chinary?
C. UNG: I think she referred to playing your instrument and singing simultaneously, sometimes whistling and spoken and chanting.
CAVANAUGH: Whistling, spoken and chanting, I can see where that would – that would be…
S. UNG: The singing is the hardest part. Singing and playing different pitches and rhythms simultaneously.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Chinary, as a composer, what is SummerFest like for you?
C. UNG: It’s heaven. I think, first of all, I have a chance to interact with performers, terrific performers, and then to see how my composition can be realized. And also in my composition, there is room for performers to make their own interpretation. And beyond that, to have a chance to interact with audience and also sometime young composers, so I think that is good.
CAVANAUGH: Now when the performers do interact with your particular composition, what – do you appreciate that feedback or is it a challenge for you?
C. UNG: I always appreciate the feedback.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, always?
C. UNG: Always.
CAVANAUGH: All right. We have a note of that now. Now there will be a performance…
C. UNG: It’s on record now.
CAVANAUGH: There will be a performance of one of your pieces commissioned by SummerFest. It is called “Akasa: Formless Spiral” for viola, cello, pipa, piano and percussion. Can you tell us about this piece, Chinary?
C. UNG: I got a call a while back from Jimmy and I was thrilled. And I really appreciate that. Without that call, there wouldn’t be this piece at all. And I wrote this piece in mind with these players and Real Quiet and Wu Man and then Susan. I have, of course, I’ve heard their performing qualities and I sort of estimate how they might interpret my music and so forth.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
C. UNG: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: So is this a composition that can only be played by these performers?
C. UNG: To start with…
C. UNG: …and I hope that other performer can – can pick up.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Now, Susan, you play the viola and you will perform this piece and others by your husband. How do the two of you work together on a piece?
S. UNG: Well, now that we’ve been together more than 30 years, we sort of have a system, I guess, here. Nowadays, he pretty much, since he listens to me practice all the time, doesn’t have to ask too many questions. He basically hands me the score and I have to work on it for a couple of weeks before I know if I can play it or not because it’s usually more difficult than the last one and especially in the multitasking situation. He knows that I can do this probably better than any violist right now, although I hope there’s some more coming down the pike. So he just lets me work it out and then if I have a suggestion for maybe changing one small thing, I, you know, I say, at least for now can we try this? And then if I can do it later, we’ll put it back in. So we’ll see how it goes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, of course we don’t have a sample of the composition that you’ve created…
S. UNG: No.
CAVANAUGH: …for SummerFest but we have a recording of a piece called “Spiral 11: Mother and Child.” Chinary, tell us about this piece. What inspired it?
C. UNG: Three reason came to mind a while back. One is aura, had something to do with the aura that encircle Buddha’s head. And I created that piece a while back. And then the second one was “Rain of Tears” that I wrote with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and it had something to do with Katrina. And then the third one, which is “Spiral 11: Mother and Child,” I envisioned the sound of her viola playing is the mother or it can go either way. Or her voice is the mother. And so there is an interaction between the mother and child, okay, while she’s playing and also singing. And after a while, you can’t tell who’s the mother and who’s the child. And also envision of two serpents intertwined is a kind of ritual type of a dance situation.
CAVANAUGH: Let us – Let’s hear that. Here is “Spiral 11: Mother and Child,” composed by Chinary Ung and performed by Susan Ung.
(audio clip of “Spiral 11: Mother and Child,” composition by Chinary Ung, performed by Susan Ung)
CAVANAUGH: That’s an excerpt from “Spiral 11: Mother and Child,” composed by Chinary Ung, performed by Susan Ung. Are there any – is there any other performer there? Is that all you?
S. UNG: No, it’s all me. Yeah, and later there’s whistling and at the same time, too. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: That’s an amazing performance within a – You have a very strong, compelling voice. Did you know that you had that?
S. UNG: Not until I tried. You know, about, I don’t know, I guess the first piece was in 2005 or ’06, “Aura,” and that was just a big – large ensemble piece where I had a little bit of singing and whistling in it. And now this is the fifth piece, so I’m getting better.
CAVANAUGH: How did you know, Chinary, Susan could do that?
C. UNG: I estimated, and over 20 years ago when we had the birth – our first baby, she sang some lullaby and she had the kind of focus type of quality and also it sort of coincide to my style of writing. If I were pressed against the wall, I would call myself as a futuristic folk music, and that’s what I’m writing.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So the reason that she could sing those folk songs and she could do futuristic folk songs as well.
C. UNG: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: I know that you’re from Cambodia, Chinary. What is the classical music community like in Cambodia?
C. UNG: You mean western classical music?
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Uh-huh.
C. UNG: Not much. We don’t have much classical music. However, recently, there are a number ensemble go to Cambodia. You know, during my time in the sixties, I encountered the first classical performance when the New York Woodwind Quintet came to Cambodia and they play the first movement of Mozart. And I was 19 already and so I – and then I came to this country at the age of 20 or 20 and a half. I had no knowledge about classical music, not to mention my new music.
CAVANAUGH: And so how did you – Did you do a crash course? Or was there something that you knew about music already that translated?
C. UNG: No, they place me at Manhattan School of Music and I was – my major was clarinet but I assigned myself to learn – try to catch up. So like this man is Mozart man, the next is Beethoven and Brookner and so forth, every man while I’m cooking and working around in my apartment. That’s the only one way to do the catch up. And the strategy’s really interesting, I think, in retrospect. I study with the 19th century because it is full of expression and emotion and then I go outwardly to Renaissance and to new music and so forth. The 19th century, I would recommend to the people from various culture to start with.
CAVANAUGH: That’s where you start.
C. UNG: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating.
C. UNG: Umm-hmm.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I know that your work commissioned by SummerFest has a part written in it for the pipa. We need to take a break here. When we return, we’ll have a performance from Wu Man on the pipa. And you’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days. We continue our hour of conversation and performances with artists from La Jolla’s SummerFest. My guests are Jimmy Lin, Chinary Ung, Susan Ung, Wu Man and Christopher O’Riley. And Wu Man, we – you’re the virtuoso on the pipa. We know that that’s part of Chinary Ung’s composition for SummerFest. Tell us a little bit about the pipa and the role that the instrument plays in Chinese music.
WU: Well, as you see, four strings, lutelike. It’s like…
CAVANAUGH: It’s lutelike, with four strings.
WU: Yeah, with the four strings…
WU: …type instrument. Very much like – sound like a guitar or banjo, sort of from the same plucking family. Well, exist in China over 2000 years. Quite old instrument. Was introduced from central Asia to China, and the Chinese developed the way, the cabaret, of this instrument very much Chinese now. And with the right hand, five finger to pluck, do all kinds of plucking sound, tremolo, you know. And the left hand, a lot of style, which is very typical style, it’s banding the notes, big vibrato, and we will see – you’ll hear later. So that’s – But, you know, it’s a very popular traditional instrument in China.
CAVANAUGH: What do you like about the pipa?
WU: Oh, gosh, I don’t know if I – I have no other choice, that’s why. Yeah, I started this instrument when I was 9 and basically parents, you know, like, okay, here you go. That’s the instrument you’re going to play. No piano, no violin, this is. So, anyway, so from – many years now.
CAVANAUGH: That’s where it started…
CAVANAUGH: …but you’ve grown to – I mean, this is almost part of your body now, right?
WU: Yeah, first few years, of course, for any kids, we hated to practice, sit down. But later on, you really kind of got into the music and I really fall in love with this instrument so that’s why I have no other choice.
CAVANAUGH: Now your father liked it because of the way it made you look. It was featured in so many paintings and so many Chinese paintings with elegant ladies holding it.
WU: That’s rumor. Well, yes. Yes. That’s what my father told me when I was 9, and, of course, you will see a lot of older painting right now exist in the museum still, all the women play this instrument. But that’s, which is actually not very true. All my teacher’s generation, they are men. So obviously this is the instrument anybody can play.
CAVANAUGH: Was it – Do you have any comparison? Is it difficult to learn? Have you talked with other musicians who say, my, my, my, that is one difficult – that is one difficult musical instrument to learn.
WU: Well, I fairly to say it is, is the most difficult instrument to play. Around all the Chinese instrument, this is the most difficult. The reason I said difficult, which is, you know, both hand, ten fingers, like a piano, you know. But also ten fingers. Really demanding, you need to really practice and made the sound better, made the sound good, listenable. First to – you know, I told my students I took two years to play sound right, only sound right. So it is quite a demanding instrument.
CAVANAUGH: And I know that it also took you two years to build up speed with the certain fingering. Do you think you could show us how that sounds now?
WU: Wow, you remember everything. Okay, so here is the righthanded tremolo, starts with the five fingers. (Wu demonstrates) So all the dynamic, actually you have to control. It’s like any other instrument, too, you have to control the dynamic, the quality of the sound, how do you produce the sound. So that’s kind of need a lot of time.
CAVANAUGH: That was amazing. Thank you for that. And I know that – Am I right in thinking that you pluck these strings with your fingernails? Is that right?
WU: Yes, with plastic fingernails.
CAVANAUGH: Would you perform a piece for us, please, Wu Man? I think you’re going to play “Flute and Drum at Sunset?”
WU: Yes. That’s a traditional piece. First notated in 19th century.
CAVANAUGH: Wonderful. Thank you so much.
(audio of Wu Man performing “Flute and Drum at Sunset”)
CAVANAUGH: That is Wu Man playing “Flute and Drum at Sunset” on the pipa. And I want to thank you for that. That was lovely. And I think it’s so interesting that you chose this classic Chinese song for us because I know that it’s part of what you’re doing now is going back to China and rediscovering some of the folk music that you never knew when you were growing up in China. Tell us about that.
WU: Well, when I was in China, I grew up in the city, urban, and trained in the music conservatory. So basically very limited knowledge about Chinese folk music, especially some parts far away in northern west part of China. I had no idea. And when you grew up, when you get aged, and lived in this country for many years, and you started thinking so who am I? And why I’m Chinese musician? Why I’m a musician? And I want to find what’s going on in China, what exactly in the small village is going on? What kind of tradition there? So that’s how I rediscovered the actually very fascinating Chinese folk music and all the family bands. Right now, here we – in the States, we heard a lot of the Chinese music, you know, restaurant or somewhere in elevator, pop music or urban music, very much so. But never really have the wild, exciting folk music, very earthy, introduced to the west or to different audience. So that’s how I – I’m very excited. My experience, I went back to China and rediscover, and specific I pick this piece. Also, I found some intonation, some style, the music language actually very close to Cambodian as well, some way. So it’s all actually, you know, music all related.
CAVANAUGH: And at the same time that you’re rediscovering Chinese folk music, so many western composers are rediscovering or discovering the pipa and composing things for you, pieces for you. Are – Is that an exciting thing for you?
WU: Definitely, yes. Like we’re going to play for the summer festival Chinary’s piece. And first time I work with Chinary and first time I actually play sort of Cambodian style, which is exciting, I found, the way that the language or the tone, the color, actually very close to Chinese music. And also get chance to work with the musician from different parts and with the violin, with the piano, with percussion. That’s kind of a treat for me because in the traditional Chinese music, there’s, you know, we don’t have that sort of chamber music. Always solo or jam together.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly.
WU: So that’s kind of another part of my life, being a musician, and it’s a exciting time for, I think, for musician and especially myself. I’m – I interest in everything, not only traditional Chinese music, so this is a great chance, and to introduce to audience, too, kind of, you know, music possibility. We could have all kinds of music.
CAVANAUGH: Moving over to the piano side of the chamber music festival, I want to introduce Christopher O’Riley. Now I know, Christopher, you’re very accustomed to radio appearances.
CAVANAUGH: You host an NPR show called “From The Top,” which we’ve aired here in the past. You’ve also brought that show to SummerFest. How have you done that?
O'RILEY: Well, oftentimes when we take our live tapings on the road, we are guests of sometimes a music school, sometimes the sponsoring radio organization. And La Jolla Music Festival has a great history of sponsoring and encouraging young artists so it was a very nice sort of confluence of energies and events.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the show, “From The Top,” what’s the focus?
O'RILEY: “From The Top” is basically a celebration of pre-college classical musicians. The important part to note is that these musicians may or may not continue with classical music but classical music is, indeed, a part of their lives that they can’t do very well without. And I think the general impression in the United States is one of complete inundation and immersion or nothing at all. If you don’t know the names, dates and places of all the composers, we don’t want you in the audience and we certainly don’t want you, you know, clapping between movements, etcetera, etcetera. And “From The Top” gives the lie to that and says that as these kids are the best emissaries of the music, it is just something that they find wholly invigorating, something that helps them develop as human beings, something that they can share with their friends, and come up with, you know, in the case of the string quartet or orchestra, something larger than themselves so they don’t have to be a great soccer player to be part of a great community of excellence.
CAVANAUGH: What do you think all that talent, all that energy from the young musicians gives to you and gives to the audience?
O'RILEY: Well, it gives to the audience, first of all, getting to know them as people gives the audience the opportunity to connect with them as human beings. I think many people going to concerts do like to know, well, what is that player thinking about? Or why did they choose this piece? And quite often, particularly when we don’t have traditional instruments on the show, we’re playing a lot of new music and it’s fantastic to hear the young musicians speak about what moves them about this or that piece of music. And hearing the young people and maybe sharing an interest in laser tag or, you know, a one-woman presentation on Israeli immigration, you know, it strikes a chord and they say, okay, well, I like this kid. I’m going to give this music a chance. It’s an extraordinary experience.
CAVANAUGH: And, Jimmy Lin, I know that SummerFest, the essence of SummerFest, is very much about students and young people and even getting the San Diego community youngsters involved, not only in the music but the musicians, the young musicians themselves. Tell us about that.
LIN: Well, I think education is incredibly important, and SummerFest is a really good setting in which young musicians of different levels can all be mentored. For instance, in our workshop program, we have a string quartet, the Hausmann Quartet, which is about to start a residency at the San Diego State University, and as well as a piano trio made out of three very accomplished young musicians. One already is embarked on a very fantastic career, being the new concert master of the Atlanta Symphony. And these are very advanced players. They are really on the cusp of something extraordinary. But then at the same time, we want to open doors to all other, especially San Diego area, young musicians. So sometimes these seven young musicians from the workshop program turn themselves around and become teachers and they coach San Diego area young players, members of the San Diego Youth Symphony, for instance, and so the young players here get a chance to be exposed to what the older musicians are thinking of. And recently when we had our outdoor concert, we invited the San Diego Youth Symphony, their international version, the summer program, to appear on stage with us. And I think all these things sort of add up to not only just music making from an older generation but also it hopefully opens doors and new ideas to these young musicians.
CAVANAUGH: We’re going to continue with our conversation with the artists of SummerFest and have a performance by Christopher O’Riley and Jimmy Lin, so stay tuned as our SummerFest special continues. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days. And you’ve been hearing there Christopher O’Riley’s arrangement of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” We’re – Christopher O’Riley is one of our SummerFest artists that we are talking with this morning, along with Jimmy Lin, Chinary Ung, Susan Ung and Wu Man. And we’re just about to hear a piece played by both Christopher O’Riley and Jimmy Lin. Tell us, Christopher, about the piece you’ve chosen.
O'RILEY: Well, this was a real festive opportunity. I’ve never had the chance to actually play with Jimmy before and at the Gala, we did this real showpiece, a real oddity, a movement of a sonata sort of written by committee for the birthday of Joseph Yuahim (sp). I believe Schumann contributed a movement, Brahms contributed this scarazzo movement, which is really quite – quite, just gorgeous. The first time I heard Jimmy play was Brahms G – Brahms B-Flat Sextet. So it was a great opportunity, went well then. We wanted to share it with our radio friends.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much. Jimmy Lin on violin and Christopher O’Riley at the piano.
(audio of Lin and O’Riley recreating a piece performed at the SummerFest Gala)
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That was Jimmy Lin on violin and Christopher O’Riley on piano, playing a very energetic Brahms scarazzo. Thank you both so much. And I hope you don’t mind if I point out, Christopher, that in this very San Diego SummerFest, you were pedaling that piano in bare feet.
O'RILEY: Much better. Trust me. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: That was exquisite. Thank you both so much for that. As I mentioned earlier, Christopher, you’re widely known for your piano arrangements of contemporary bands. Was Radiohead the first band that inspired you?
O'RILEY: Well, actually, no. I’ve always just really played what I like and sometimes that has led me to play things that weren’t originally written for piano. Stravinsky, ballets, Bach organ works, Piazzolla tangos, so I’ve been sort of doing this transcribing along with all the other things that I’ve been doing.
CAVANAUGH: Now are there other contemporary bands as well that interest you?
O'RILEY: Oh, yeah. The last record I did – I’ve actually done two whole records of Radiohead transcriptions, arrangements, one by – one of songs by Elliot Smith, another by Nick Drake, and the latest record “Out of my Hands” features songs that I’ve arranged by Nirvana, Pink Floyd, the Smiths, more Radiohead, more Elliot Smith, and the Bad Plus, all kinds of things, all over the map.
CAVANAUGH: A lot of, you know, a lot of these works are fronted by people who – musicians who, you know, had tragic ends.
CAVANAUGH: The – Kurt Cobain and Nick Dav – and I’m wondering, do you have – does that attract you in some way?
O'RILEY: I’m a depressive Irishman so, you know, I’m sort of drawn to that. I’ll tell you, though, it’s quite gratifying, though. The ultimate gratification for me came last summer. A friend of mine was driving a carload of people up to Tannery Pond to hear Carter Brey and I were playing a recital. And the woman in the backseat was saying, you know, so which is the one we’re hearing today? I know there’s like a whole musical mafia of O’Rileys these days. There’s one that’s got – He’s got a – There’s one that’s got a radio show, another on TV, a conductor, a classical pianist, and then there’s the one who plays Radiohead. And the guy says, uh, it’s all the same guy.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, multiple personalities as well. I wonder – I think that you’re going to perform another song for us. This is a transcription that you’ve made from a Tears for Fears song called “Mad World.” Why did you choose this song?
O'RILEY: Well, actually the original song by Tears for Fears is sort of the least well known version of this song. It was – came out in the eighties and it’s sort of almost like a techno-disco sort of thing. I came to this song through the soundtrack of “Donnie Darko,” a wonderful, wonderful movie in which Gary Jules sang a different arrangement of the song. And that’s actually – I believe it’s also appeared on “American Idol.” It’s become very popular in that state. So that version was really what inspired me and so this is terrible now, I’m doing a cover of a cover, you know, so…
CAVANAUGH: Hey, whatever works, right?
O'RILEY: Can’t help it.
CAVANAUGH: If you would, Christopher. Thank you so much. Tears for Fears and “Mad World” performed by Christopher O’Riley.
(audio of O’Riley performing “Mad World”)
CAVANAUGH: 45.52 That sounds so good like that.
CAVANAUGH: That was Tears for Fears – his transcription of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” by all of the Christopher O’Rileys. Thank you so much for that. That was wonderful.
O'RILEY: A pleasure. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Jimmy Lin, what is on the agenda this week for SummerFest?
LIN: Well, let me think. We have a all Schumann concert tomorrow, continuing our three-concert survey of Schumann’s works, celebrating his 200th birthday. And then on Wednesday, we’re going to have a wonderful pianist who has never come to SummerFest before, Gabriela Montero. And Gabriela comes from Venezuela and she’s making a lot of headways in as a international soloist and one of her specialties is improvisation, an art form that is very much lost today. And I believe at the concert she’s going to solicit tunes from the audience…
LIN: …and she’s going to improvise whatever it is that’s requested of her. So I’m looking forward to that.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all so much. My guests have been Jimmy Lin, Chinary Ung, Susan Ung, Wu Man and Christopher O’Riley. Thank you all. It’s been wonderful having you here performing for us live. Thank you.
LIN: Thank you.
WU: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know SummerFest performances take place through August 27th at the Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.