For showing that musical virtuosity knows no bounds
In an age of hyper-specialization, Wu Tong has made a career of being versatile. The 44-year-old Beijing native is a rock-and-roll star. But he’s also a classical musician. He’s a practitioner of Chinese music, but is also well-versed in Western traditions. The Grammy winner is a talented singer, with impressive range, but is also a master on the sheng — a wood instrument his family has manufactured and played for generations.
Wu’s polymathic nature is a product of a childhood in which his musician father forced him to learn the sheng, or else endure a beating. But in the late 1970s, exposure to cassette tapes of American country music changed his trajectory, and some years later he became the frontman for the groundbreaking rock band Lunhui.
As a classical musician, Wu has performed as a soloist in symphonies across three continents: the New York Philharmonic, London Sinfonietta, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. And in 2000, he achieved wide exposure after joining cellist Yo Yo Ma to found the famed Grammy-winning Silk Road Ensemble. The group, comprised of renowned musicians from more than 20 countries, is noted for its blend of instrumentation and musical styles. A perfect fit, therefore, for the multi-talented Wu.
“The roots of our musical languages are very close, and even if I don't know the nuances, it can just be a matter of simplifying what I play,” he said about his work in the ensemble. “If you play from the heart, you dissolve boundaries and open up to others.”
Rock music is no longer a novelty in China, and classical Chinese music has found an audience beyond the country’s borders. But Wu’s mastery of both idioms remains unique — and uniquely powerful.
"[His] strength is that he's deeply rooted in a classical tradition, but plays with the immediacy of a pop musician," said the violinist Todd Reynolds. “That combination of sensibilities speaks to a much wider range of people than either a classical or pop musician could."