With Ordway concert, Gao Hong celebrates 50 years of playing the pipa

29 March 2022

The pipa is one of the most complex instruments to learn how to play, requiring years to master the skills required to make it soar. The four string, pear-shaped instrument is held vertically, and is very heavy. The right hand is constantly rolling in a tremolo like motion, and also plucking the strings, while the left hand is bending, pushing, and crossing. 

“It’s unnatural,” says pipa player and composer Gao Hong. “It’s very difficult.” 

And yet, the Chinese instrument is so expressive, it can sound like horses trotting, or flowing water. The versatility of its sound makes it ideal for the storytelling that is part of its music making. 

On Sunday, April 3, Gao will celebrate 50 years of playing the pipa with a concert at the Ordway, as well as the 100th anniversary of her late teacher, pipa master Lin Shicheng. The event is a way for Gao to share the joy and beauty of her instrument, as well as her life-long devotion to teaching. 

The concert features Gao’s celebrated compositions, her talent at improvisation, and a world premiere of a piece called Pipa Concerto for Mixed Chinese and Western Orchestra. She’ll also perform in works with guests from the Minnesota Orchestra, her multicultural group Speaking in Tongues and the rapper/singer Dessa. 

Playing the pipa was not Gao Hong’s first choice as an instrument. “My mom forced me to be a pipa player,” she admits. 

Growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, her family was sent to live in a rural area, which made the prospect of Gao’s musical career more difficult.

“My father was blacklisted because he was an artist and also was a landowner,” she says.

Still, she played multiple instruments, including the accordion, Chinese lute and fiddle. Her mother, a music teacher, advised Gao to play the Pipa, because less people play it, and it would make it easier to get a job. 

She remembers her mother making her practice eight hours each day: two hours upon waking, two hours at lunch time, two hours after school, and two more after dinner. “It was really painful,” she recalls. 

After she graduated from Central University, she went to Japan, studying for the first time outside of China. “I suddenly realized, they don’t see Gao Hong. They only see you as a Chinese musician,” she says. “I realized, I better do a better job. Otherwise, if I don’t play well, they think, maybe that’s how the music is.” 

Gao discovered she could express herself through improvisation and creating her own music. “Until then I was just copying other people, and traditional Chinese music that has 2000 years of history in the pipa repertory,” she says. “When I started to improvise with other people and use my own music to express my emotion, that’s the time I really suddenly realized, ‘Wow, I’m glad my mom forced me.’” 

Improvisation is a key part of Gao’s practice. When she performs with an orchestra, she’ll tell the conductor not to look at the score during her solo sections. “Every time I improvise, I just feel like I have more energy,” she says. “It is very risky. You’ll never know if you have the click or not, but I think it’s also very rewarding.”

As a composer, “I speak my own language,” Gao says. Often, she’s done collaborations with musicians from other musical traditions, or she takes Chinese elements to compose cross-cultural music. 

One notable project Gao embarked on recently was with Dessa, adding the pipa to a video of Dessa performing her song “Jumprope.” It was for a program presented by the China Foreign Culture Group Co. and broadcast on CCTV and online last year. The online collaboration worked out so well, Gao decided to bring Dessa on for the performance. 

Gao has performed with Ragamala Dance Company and Theater Mu, and has been featured on TPT. She’s been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, most recently for their Lunar New Year celebration. She was also commissioned to create an overture with Minnesota Sinfonia, and a double concerto for Pipa, Bassoon and Orchestra for the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra. 

Whether she’s improvising, making cross-cultural collaborations, or honoring her mentor, Gao hopes the concert connects more people to Chinese music and the pipa. “It’s also a way to thank Minnesota for all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had,” Gao says. 

The Music of Gao Hong, A Celebration of 50 Years of Making Music With Friends takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 3 at the Ordway ($15-18). More information here

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