When Gao Hong first came to the United States for a concert tour in 1994, someone called up the Denver radio station that had announced her performance there. He had a question.

"How," he wanted to know, "can this Chinese woman play the peapod?"

After 35 years playing her instrument, 31 of them as a professional-and bear in mind, she's only 43 years old-Gao encounters fewer people who can't distinguish between a legume and a 2,000-year-old Chinese musical instrument. The pipa, with a pear-shaped body and four silk strings that are plucked with both hands, is among the world's most difficult instruments to master.

Gao's mastery came at a high cost. The Cultural Revolution in China dismantled her family when she was 7 years old; this tragedy put her on the musical path she follows 35 years later.

The path was not of her choosing, and was lonely and difficult at first. But Gao made it her own, and her life now contains both peace and passion. The word "lucky" peppers her conversation.

Telling a story
"The pipa can tell you a story," said Gao, when asked how she'd describe the instrument she loves to someone who had never heard it. "It can sound like people talking, horses trotting, flowing water or a cannon shot."

But at the beginning, it was a meal ticket-a way for a young child to escape a dim future.

Gao's father-an artist, government official and landowner-was blacklisted and banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. Her mother, a music teacher, had to divorce him because if she remained married to someone on the blacklist, she wouldn't be allowed to teach. Eventually, each remarried other people.

Her father got a factory job, and her mother went to work arranging Gao's escape route-a path that led her away from her family and onto a global stage.

Lonely tears
As the daughter of a music teacher, Gao tried out many instruments, including the piano, zither and accordion, but the pipa drew her. "It was very complex, very emotional," she said. But her mother steered her to it for practical reasons.

"If you can play this, it will be easier for you to get a job," Gao recalled her mother telling her. "There will be less competition."

Finding a pipa teacher wasn't easy. Gao's mother taught her for a couple of years; then, she went to a teacher in a city two-and-a-half hours away.

At age 12, Gao turned professional after a friend of her mother told the leader of a provincial song and dance troupe in north central China that Gao played pipa. It turned out they needed a pipa player. Gao auditioned, and became their youngest member ever. They were based 400 miles from her home.

"I never went back," Gao said. "My sister brought all my things to where I was staying." The 12-year-old's roommates were 10 and 14 years older than she.

"I was very lonely, and cried every night," she said. "Whenever I saw kids with their parents, I would cry."

Gao spent four years with the troupe before, wanting to escape her misery, she left to attend an arts school. At 22, she was one of two pipa players admitted to China's premier school of music, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. One or two pipa artists per year got in. "It's like Julliard," she said, "but harder to get in-because we have so many more Chinese."

There, she studied with pipa master Lin Shicheng, at whose invitation she had auditioned. "He is like the Ravi Shankar of pipa," Gao said.

After graduating four years later, she joined the Beijing Dance and Singing Troupe as a soloist. In her mid-20s now, she wasn't so lonely. On a trip with the troupe to Japan to mark the 20th anniversary of Chinese relations with Japan, a Japanese agent signed her up. Three months later she got her visa and, without knowing the language, was off for a year in Japan.

Not long thereafter, in 1994, she came to the United States for a 10-city tour that included Minneapolis. She didn't see much of the Twin Cities, though. "Hotel, highway, concert hall, airport," Gao said with a laugh. "That has been my life."

But she saw enough to convince her she wanted to stay in the United States. Oh, and she fell in love with the man who's now her husband.

They'd met in 1992 when Paul Dice, a composer originally from Iowa, visited China as part of a musical delegation. He was the one who suggested that Gao tour America. They corresponded while she was in Japan, and he booked the tour and arranged for her visa. The couple and their 7-year-old daughter now live in Northfield.

Land of opportunity
Gao said friends often try to convince her to relocate to New York, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.-cities with much larger Chinese populations. "But I think I have more opportunity here than my friends," she said. "I love Minnesota because we have so many nonprofit arts organizations, and I have been very lucky to get many grants."

In 1997, Gao was the first Chinese musician awarded an Artist Assistance Fellowship from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The same year, she won a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Performing Musicians and a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant. In 2000 she earned a LIN (Leadership Initiatives in Neighborhoods) Grant from The St. Paul Companies. In 2002, Gao was awarded a second McKnight Artist Fellowship for Performing Musicians, becoming the first musician in any genre to win the award twice. Along with performing, she is on the music faculty of Carleton College.

While Gao considers herself lucky in many ways, she knows her accomplishments and contentment came at great cost-and as a mother, she wants something different for her daughter. "I definitely don't want my daughter to be a professional musician because of all the struggles you have to endure," she said. "My own life has been filled with so much suffering due to my profession. I can't imagine my daughter going through the same things."

Gao's own mother is very proud of her daughter, but also "still feels guilty for making me leave my family so early. She does everything she can to make up for it," said Gao. "She came to America [for awhile] to help us raise our daughter, though she couldn't speak a word of English. She is still upset I'm so far away from her, but she is happy for me for having a good career and life in America."

Branching out
Gao has taken the pipa into uncharted territory. Besides playing solo or with traditional Chinese ensembles, she's delved into jazz and world music, appearing at such venues as the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Again, the original motive was largely practical. "It's a good way to open doors," she said. "If you just play traditional pipa, fewer people go to your concerts." But now, jazz is among her passions. Gao has noticed increased awareness of the pipa since she first visited this country-"especially in Minnesota," she said. "In other Midwestern states I ask [at concerts and workshops], who has seen a pipa before? One or two hands are raised, but here [in Minnesota], I see many hands raised." Some have seen a pipa in movies or on TV, she added, but many have also seen her perform around the Twin Cities.

If you haven't yet seen Gao-or a pipa-you've got a couple of chances coming up to remedy that. As she plays, you might hear within the music the sound of a young girl crying-or the laughter of an accomplished woman who considers herself lucky.

Upcoming Performances
What: Gao Hong with VocalEssence, "The Joy of Spring" World premiere of Gao Hong's first choral composition, "The Coming of Spring," by VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle, conductor
When: Sun., April 6, 2008, 4 p.m.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, St Paul
Tickets: http://www.vocalessence.org/tickets $20-35, a $2.50 facility fee will be added.

What: "Celebration-Music of Gao Hong"
To celebrate Gao Hong's 35th anniversary of playing her instrument, Gao performs traditional work as well as her own compositions. Included will be a very important work lost for generations and recently reconstructed by Gao's late mentor, Pudong master Lin Shicheng. The program also includes a pipa and sitar duet, along with the premiere performances of an all-female ensemble featuring cellist Michelle Kinney; Gao Hong on pipa; and Indian vocalist and veena player Nirmala Rajasekar.
When: Sat., April 19, 2008, 8 p.m.
Where: Ted Mann Hall, Minneapolis
Tickets: 952-210-3628 or e-mail wmpros@yahoo.com
$18 adults, $16 students and seniors in advance, $20 at the door. 10 tickets or more $15. Cancer patients and survivors $9.

The profile appears in every issue of the Minnesota Women's Press. It reflects our founding principle and guiding philosophy that every woman has a story. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for profile subjects.