Concert Review – Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project

For the past two mornings, I have woken up thinking about the concert I attended on Friday of the Silk Road Project, an ensemble organized by Yo-Yo Ma.  It was the first time I was able to attend a Silk Road Project concert and if I can help it, I won’t miss future concerts when the group comes to Chicago.

What made the evening particularly interesting and memorable, aside from the marvelous playing, was the eclectic mix of instruments brought together on a single stage performing music that reflects the past and present, East and West, and stories of history. The ensemble is comprised of a mixture of traditional strings, Middle Eastern and Indian percussion, Asian winds and plucked instruments, and a Galician bag pipe, the gaita.

The concert began with Corante written by Cristina Pato, who also performed the gaita.  The music is inspired by the Greek myth of Charon, the boatman who transported the deceased across the river Acherton that separates the world between the living and the dead.  The tone Pato made and the way she played the gaita created a striking combination. Throughout the composition, the gaita makes a sliding musical gesture upward, which I interpreted as the living weeping for the dead as they cross from one world to the other.

Without a break, the ensemble smoothly transitions to a traditional Persian song, Ascending Bird. The work is more lively and rhythmic. The piece is also based on myth about a bird that tries to fly to the sun, but only succeeds on the third attempt achieving a “metaphorical spiritual transcendence.”

The next piece, Wine Madness, featured Wu Tong performing the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ which has a similarity to the harmonica because the performer can both blow and suck in air to produce sound. The composition was written by third-century scholar Ruan Ji, who was asked by the emperor of China to arrange for his son to marry his daughter, an act that caused great torment leading him to remain drunk for 60 days to avoid passing the message to his son.  The calm beginning signified the ache of carrying an unwanted burden that transitioned to an animated middle section, which reflects the madness growing within before fading to gentle acceptance.

The first-half ended with Air to Air written by Osvaldo Golijov.  He describes the the piece as “music borne from community” for which he also believes the music and the ensemble exemplify.  The work is four movements that mutate into each other without a break by combining various Christian-Arab melodies, Muslim-Arab melodies, indigenous voices from Chiapas, Mexico, and a protest song from 18th century Sardinia.  If you have never heard a piece by Golijov, his unique voice as composer seamlessly intertwines varying musical themes into one composition.  Thus far, every composition I have heard performed that is written by Golijov has impressed me.  Air to Air is equally interesting, moving and entertaining.

The second half opens with The Taranta Project by cellist Giovanni Sollima, who explores various music styles – classical, rock, jazz and various ethnic sonorities – exploring musical traditions from the Sicily and Mediterranean lands.  Scored for string quartet and a percussionist, without a doubt the percussionist stole the show for this work.  In one movement, the percussionist (I think Joseph Gramley) slaps his torso as an instrument.  In another movement, Yo-Yo Ma and Gramley perform a duo that highlights the rock influence. Ma also showed is amazing technical facility by bowing with right hand while doing pizzicatos with his left.

Shristi, a percussion ensemble featuring tablas, tom-toms, and bongos came next.  The title means creation or birth and explores the moment creation started.  Sandeep Das, who played tablas, displayed incredible control performing rhythms with precision and speed; it was almost unbelievable had I not been in the audience.  The audience was captivated as the ensemble explored various Indian rhythms and created sonic combinations of percussive sounds that exhibited the beginning of time.  Loud bursts of thunder coupled and white flashes of lightning with pouring rain in the background amplified the drama of the composition.  It was a piece I didn’t want to end and when it did, it felt as if it was too soon.

The final composition, Ambush from Ten Sides, is about a battle in ancient China written for pipa, a Chinese plucked instrument, which was arranged for the Road Silk Project.  The battle this composition is about led to the birth of the Han dynasty.

The first piece of the encore was a moving solo on pipa performed by Yang Wei.  As if this was a rock concert, what followed was a jam session between various ensemble members that fed off each other’s energy.  It started simple with Wu Tong playing an improvised melody on sheng. Then other members entered when they felt the urge to expand on a musical idea. This is probably one of the few times I will ever see gaita and sheng performers jam out on a stage.  The moment was a brilliant way to end grand night of music.  It illustrated the musicianship and passion for music by the members of the ensemble.

Silk Road Project is carnival of musical culture, a harmonious party that you don’t want to end.  This was really a different kind of concert and one that will stick with me for many years to come.

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