Listen to a Lunar New Year 'Celebration' with Gao Hong

Gao Hong with her pipa.
Gao Hong with her pipa.
Courtesy of Gao Hong | Photo by John Anderson

World-renowned Minnesota musician Gao Hong spent her early professional life mastering the pipa, a traditional Chinese string instrument with a wide-ranging, versatile sound.

She played at Carnegie Hall more than a decade ago and returned there just last month, this time to watch her original composition, “Celebration”, come to life.

New Ulm will have a chance to hear Gao’s work on Sunday, Jan. 29, when she and chamber music organization ProMusica are scheduled to perform a Lunar New Year concert.

She joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her love of improvisation, playing the pipa, and the upcoming show.  

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC - GAO HONG, "CELEBRATION"] CATHY WURZER: The Lunar New year is underway, and it's a huge event for the Asian community. Lunar New year continues for 15 days, so what better time to celebrate with an original composition by Minnesota resident and composer, Gao Hong. This song is entitled "Celebration." The performance was recorded last year at St. Paul's Ordway. On January 29, Gao will be in New Ulm with Pro Musica for a Lunar New Year concert. Right now, she's with us on Minnesota Now. Gao Hong, I am so happy you're here. You are such a treasure. Thanks for being here.

GAO HONG: Oh, thank you so, so much for having me. It is such a great honor to be here talking with you.

CATHY WURZER: The composition "Celebration" was performed at Carnegie Hall. Now that must have been amazing.

GAO HONG: Yeah, that was really, really wonderful. On December 29, I was in there. I once performed in Carnegie Hall. It was 15 years ago-- celebrate my 35th year in Carnegie Hall. But at that time I was pipa player, and some of my own compositions. But this time I was just a composer sitting in the hall, watching over 100 player play my music just for the orchestra. I was really, really honored. I was very, very excited too.

CATHY WURZER: What's it like being in the audience when a group is performing one of your compositions? What kind of emotions are you feeling?

GAO HONG: Oh, my gosh. It's a mix of a different audience, and I was just-- you know when you're onstage, you know you can control if you play good or not. But when you tend to the incredible musician, they played it so beautifully it make you feel, wow, that's so honored.

So a lot of people didn't know I was a compose-- composer. They-- some of my friends came. They thought I was going to play on the stage. And therefore, I was in the audience. I think as a musician, I just was so honored to hear other people play your own conversation. It just unbelievable.

CATHY WURZER: Now you mentioned you're a pipa player, and I think you and I have talked about the pipa in the past. It's the most difficult of Chinese instruments to learn. Isn't that right?

GAO HONG: Yes. Yes, it's one of the most difficult instrument to learn in Chinese instruments. The reason is because there's some of the tremolo and some of the left hand we over together, like, over 100 different techniques. You can imitate the sounds from water, from gong, or Chinese percussion, and even people talking. So it's very, very-- a variety of sound.

Fact-- I think my mom forced me to play that piece-- I mean, play the pipa to better get a job faster. That's-- I think that my mom thought that would be a good opportunity for me to became a professional musician.

CATHY WURZER: I've been in the audience where you say, give me a title. Let's make up a title. You do some-- a lot of improvisation, which is pretty fun to watch and to listen to, because you can make that pipa sound like anything, really.

GAO HONG: Oh, thank you so much. I love to do live composition, because there, if the audience gave me some title, I would start thinking about what they think. I'm composing on the spot with them, so they follow you better and I feel more alive. So that's why I love improvisation.

Even right now, I have a new concept that I will write for a piano trio, which means next Sunday we're performing in New Ulm home with the Pro Musica. And-- but for my part, I will improvise a little bit. So in case somebody heard this piece, every time a little different. So that's my new concept. I love to do that with a live composition.

CATHY WURZER: Do you do a lot of-- how could I say this-- fusion music? Would that be right? Fusion music with the pipa, blending different genres?

GAO HONG: Oh, yes. I love that. I play with blues, jazz, and of course the music around the world from Indian, Arabic, Japanese, klezmer music. Of course, the chamber music orchestra. I was very lucky to commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra last year to wrote a pipa concerto-- to write a pipa concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Yesterday, I just had a wonderful concert with a backing ensemble. Just a wonderful musician. I just very, very love to do the collaboration with different cultural fusion. That's my favorite thing to do right now.

CATHY WURZER: You-- Thanks for mentioning the Minnesota Orchestra. Because Dessa, who we all love, of course had-- has done some great work with the Minnesota Orchestra. And you collaborated with Dessa, and I'm going to play a little bit of that collaboration on the air right now. This is the song called "Jump Rope."


(SINGING) You hope you get the fast horse. Some of what you asked for. Never let a broken heart keep you from the dance floor. Have a little fun. Have a little fun. Girls on the block turn rope, calling out the same games. Turn around, touch the ground. Wake up to find--

CATHY WURZER: I love that.

GAO HONG: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: How did that come about?

GAO HONG: Yeah, that was the last year during the pandemic. The CCTV, which means in China the central TV station, collaborated with the China National Orchestra-- have this online national-- global-wide celebration of Lunar New Year. They commissioned Dessa to do the Jump Rope. After they send the video to China, they say, there's any way you can have some Chinese elements? I think the director actually knew I was in Minnesota.

Then Dessa's manager contacted Minnesota manager. And then they said, oh, we're working with Gao Hong right now. Then you can-- you two can get together. So they sent me the video already pre-made. I just needed to come up with an improvisation. So I overlap of the recording on top of the video. And I love Dessa, so I-- after that, we already had a collaboration for my 50th year celebration in Ordway. We played live for the first time.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my goodness. So before you go, we've got about a minute and a half left or so. Tell me about the Lunar New Year concert with Pro Musica in New Ulm.

GAO HONG: Yeah. That one-- I'm very, very lucky to have incredible musicians from Minnesota Orchestra. Rui Du and-- the violinist. From Richard [INAUDIBLE]. And I'm having trouble with all the pronunciation. And the pianist will play a wonderful-- my own original composition called "A Quiet Forest, Flowing Water-- Flowing Stream." So it's-- I wrote for our piano trio, and I will play the pipa.

Of course, as the piano trio-- I first premiered by the backing ensemble, in backing trio at that time, so--


GAO HONG: --it's a-- yeah. Yeah, such an amazing honor to celebrate Chinese New Year for the concert.

CATHY WURZER: It's been an honor having you here, Gao. Thank you so much. I hope you have a wonderful concert.

GAO HONG: Thank you. Happy New Year to you.

CATHY WURZER: Happy New Year to you, as well. Composer and pipa player Gao Hong is performing with Pro Musica at a Lunar New Year concert in New Ulm Sunday, January 29. You can check out her website at chinesepipa-- that's P-I-P-A-- .com

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