This year seems to be bringing a showcase of plucked stringed instruments, presented by Duke Performances. Already we have heard lutenist Hopkinson Smith, and later this spring we will have the opportunity to hear the oud, a lute-like ancient Middle-Eastern instrument. In recent years we have had the Indian sitar, and later this month we will have the familiar classical guitar played by Paraguayan guitarist Luz Maria Bobadilla.

It doesn’t take an ethnomusicologist to realize that almost all cultures that have any sort of musical history can point to some type of wooden box with strings stretched across it as their own. Its design and construction, the circumstances and ceremonies when it is played, and its sound and technique help identify it as belonging to a specific culture. On February 2, for the first time, I experienced the Chinese pipa, and there is surely no greater artist on this instrument alive today than Wu Man.

After catching a red-eye flight from San Francisco, Man arrived in Durham with a double-booked evening ahead of her. For the first time that I can remember, a classical concert was presented with an early and late show on the same evening. Because of a change in schedule, Man and her guest artists played 7 and 9 p.m. shows in the auditorium of the Nasher Museum on the Duke University campus. As Duke Performances Director Kathy Silbiger explained before the concert began, this was a kind of trial run to see if the new auditorium is appropriate for music recitals. It is a rather long, shallow stage, but as far as audience comfort, aesthetics, and acoustics are concerned, I found it to be an unqualified success.

The Ciompi Quartet is having an unusually hectic and eclectic semester, so it was no surprise that they were the first guests to play with Wu Man in a work written for her and the Kronos Quartet in 1992. Soul for Pipa and String Quartet by Zhou Long is the first piece written to combine the pipa with a string quartet. Because of a large setup of percussion instruments for a later piece, the entire group for this one had to play at the far right of the stage, and that threw our balance off a bit – maybe a good thing. This is quite an abstract and experimental piece but one that effectively portrays the many gestures of Chinese music with mostly western instruments. As one might imagine, there is constant changing between bowed and pizzicato passages, and the quartet members were able to adopt a certain vibrato at times that was uncanny in its resemblance to traditional Chinese instruments.

The middle part of the program consisted of Wu Man playing by herself on a raised platform in the center of the stage. She first spoke about her instrument and its history and place in Chinese culture. The pipa (illustrated at the artist’s website) goes back almost 2,000 years. It has four single strings and is played with the instrument held almost completely vertically on the lap. Unlike the later lute and many other plucked stringed instruments, the majority of the playing of the pipa is done on frets on the body of instrument, not just the fingerboard.

Watching this exciting virtuoso perform, I was reminded of the axiom that applies to all stringed instruments – plucked or bowed: you play the notes with your left hand but make music with your right hand. While this may not be entirely 100% accurate in all cases – master flamenco guitarists come to mind – Man’s right hand was what I found most dazzling, for it gave the music its rhythmic bite and precision. As she explained, there are two main classifications of the classical pipa repertoire, involving the balance of the left and right hands. The “civil” style projects a lyrical, serene sound that is most often used to portray nature and the elements. More emphasis is placed on subtleties of vibrato and shading of melody. As a demonstration of this, she played an eight-movement work that translates as “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset.” This is truly programmatic music where each section poetically portrays its description. The “martial” style evokes a military or more aggressive style. Consequently, power, precision, and high energy are the main elements – attained by a very busy and complex right-hand technique.

One of the central elements of Chinese opera and other genres is the use of percussion as an integral part of the musical fabric. We got to hear a phenomenal demonstration of this as percussionist John Hanks joined Man for a work composed by Chen Yi and Man in 2005. This set of three ancient dances based on poems by Li Bai is a powerful and evocative journey to another place and time. Hanks had a boatload of instruments to handle, and he deftly touched, prodded, flicked, pounded, and set in motion a flurry of sounds that were magical. Man, with her instrument slightly amplified, seemed at times to strain to be heard, but she clearly loved it and reveled in the energy that was being generated. The full house was clearly enthralled by this “new” instrument and the stunning performances. Attendees of the first concert got to meet the artists at a reception outside the theater before they got ready to do it all again for the late show.