Thanks to Renaissance fairs everywhere, the European lute has lost its once-sterling reputation as a powerful instrument. All those men in tights warbling "Greensleeves" over delicately strummed notes, ugh. Poor lute. The reputation of the pipa, however, remains unassailed. This Chinese lute has been an important instrument for thousands of years, and one listen to it when played by a master insures that it will survive for a few millennia more. The pipa can replicate the soft patter of rain on a slowly flowing river, or the breakneck gallop of a reckless horse. A surprising range of harmonics are conjured from the pipa's four strings, coloring the music with steely shimmers and staccato outbursts. A lone pipa, well-played, is an orchestra of sound in itself.
Min Xiao Fen is such a master. A former soloist for the Nanjing National Music Orchestra, she is well-versed in the exceptional tonal possibilities of the pear-shaped instrument. More importantly, she has spent the last decade or so teaching herself to improvise outside the constraints of the traditional pipa performance. Working with such avant-jazz titans as Wadada Leo Smith and Derek Bailey, Min Xiao Fen has pushed her repertoire to include the vast centuries of traditional Chinese music, the bebop of Thelonius Monk and the outer edges of improvised music. Her style is a beautiful synthesis of the very old and the very new.
The Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park provides an exceptionally rare chance to witness this modern master at work and at play. Min Xiao Fen performs at 7 p.m. in the museum auditorium. Tickets are $10 to $20; call 314-655-5299 or visit www.slam.org for more information. -- Paul Friswold
Wish You Were Lukasz
Let's see: At age twenty you were still sneaking into bars and attempting to get a few chords right when playing Floyd on your thrift-store guitar. Don't feel bad. Twenty-year-old Lukasz Kuropaczewski is making up for your lame start to adulthood with his quite impressive one: This Polish classical guitarist has already traveled the world and made himself famous. So there. Hear the talented young 'un play alone and with violinist Katarzyna Bryla, who is also quite young and quite talented, at 8 p.m. at their Saint Louis Classical Guitar Society concert at the Ethical Society (9001 Clayton Road, Ladue). After you pawn the Guitar-You-Could-Never-Play, you should have enough scratch to attend -- tickets cost $16 to $18 (314-567-5566). -- Alison Sieloff
Storyline No. 1: A jilted wife convinces a would-be burglar to help her wreak revenge on her jerk ex-husband. So goes Criminal Hearts, onstage this weekend under the auspices of the Muddy Waters Theatre Company at St. John's United Methodist Church (5000 Washington Avenue). Storyline No. 2: A pseudonymous playwright of dozens of works wins numerous awards and a Pulitzer nomination without ever being photographed or interviewed. This is the true story of "Jane Martin," the author of Criminal Hearts. Decide for yourself which story is more unbelievable with shows at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday (February 25 through March 6). Tickets are $13 to $16; call 314-540-7831 or see www.muddywaterstheatre.com for more information. -- Jason Toon