Precious Chinese Instrument Damaged in Airline Mishap

Sunday, June 23, 2013 – 01:00 PM

By Brian Wise/WQXR Blog


Wu Man's pipa, damaged on a US Airways Flight Wu Man’s pipa, damaged on a US Airways Flight (Wu Man)

A precious Chinese instrument worth $50,000 was damaged on a US Airways flight on Friday, and its owner, the noted musician Wu Man, blames a flight attendant for dropping it.

Wu was traveling with her prized pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute), and boarding a flight from Philadelphia to New Haven, where she was to give a world premiere with the Kronos Quartet. Wu said she had tried to stow the delicate instrument in an overhead compartment but it would not fit. She asked if she could strap the instrument into the empty seat next to her, but was denied.

A flight attendant then offered to stow the pipa in a coat closet in the front of the plane. As the attendant was opening the closet, she dropped the instrument, causing the neck to snap in two. Hearing the loud noise, Wu ran to the front of the cabin. “I opened it and checked it and it’s broken,” Wu said in a phone interview Sunday. “I said, ‘you broke my instrument.’ She had no apology, no expression on her face. She still tried to say that it couldn’t fit in the closet.”

Horrified, Wu got off the flight with her broken instrument, and was later booked a bigger aircraft to Hartford, which had more overhead room. The pipa, which was not insured, will need to be sent to a specialist in China for an attempted repair. Wu is also consulting with a lawyer.

A spokesman for US Airways said in a message Sunday that the company’s customer relations department is trying to reach Wu for more information. The company also posted a message on Twitter:

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, where Wu performed on Saturday night, arranged for a substitute pipa for her concert. Still, the musician says she didn’t have access to her very best instrument for the premiere of a new work she co-wrote with Philip Glass.

Wu, who was born in China and now lives in San Diego, is considered the leading interpreter of the pipa in the West. She has been widely embraced in Western classical music circles and was named the 2012 “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America. She has performed with numerous orchestras and composers such as Tan Dun, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley have composed works for her.

Earlier this year a $20,000 cello bow belonging to Alban Gerhardt, was snapped in two in an incident involving the Transportation Security Administration.

Right: Wu Man with her pipa (Kuandl Studio)


As an orchestra conductor, I like to carry my batons in my carry-on. I was stopped once by T.S.A. and had to give a mini-lesson on what does an orchestra conductor do and why he carries these long pointy sticks. Also had a T.S.A. workers looking at my $4000 clarinet piece by piece as my heart stopped beating. All of us the music community hope that Wu’s very special instrument is repaired when she returns home. Few outside the music world can understand the relationship a musician has with his or her instrument; it is part of you both physically and spiritually.


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