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Volume 35
Issue 11
 
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Exploring the unknown with Yo-Yo Ma
Exploring the unknown with Yo-Yo Ma
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer Facing the unfamiliar is a favorite avenue to learning for famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He proved once again at Benaroya Hall that there are hoards of people eager to follow him in this pursuit. The more-than-sold out (chairs placed in usually open aisles) audience was enthusiastic from the gitgo. Obviously, the recordings and PBS presentations of Yo-Yo Ma's 'Silk Road Project' had won many a heart to this particular kind of musical/cultural adventure.

The Silk Road Project is Ma's baby, but it now involves musicians and composers of many diverse cultures from those countries through which the ancient trade route passed. Part of the fascination for Ma is finding living traditions linking different parts of Asia and the West. The enthusiastic response from audiences everywhere is proof that the traditional and new music from these lands is amazingly accessible to people who know little or nothing about these cultures.

In fact, the delight that comes from encountering a program such as this is one of discovery of not just new sounds from unfamiliar instruments and ways of singing. One also discovers relationships and intriguing connections between the strange and the familiar. For Ma, the cross-fertilization between cultures and time periods enriches his own sense of self as a musician. For us, it opens our ears to yet new ways of listening and appreciating our own traditions, even while we enjoy a refreshing excursion into foreign ways of musical expression.

Because so much in this concert was foreign to my ears, I can't find convenient comparisons to describe much of what we heard. I was never bored. I found the "orchestra" at first a confusion of sounds when everyone played, and preferred the smaller ensemble numbers. Gradually, my ears adjusted even to the large group sounds.

There were 16 musicians, all male. Western instruments included double bass, cello, viola, and 2 violins. Other instruments were tabla (drum), 2 kemanchehs, ney, Korean percussion, tar, daf, pipa, and various percussion including a huge marimba!

The program began with a suite of pieces from countries along the Silk Road. At various times, certain of the instruments were highlighted so that we gradually began to identify their individual sounds. (At no point all evening was Yo-Yo Ma featured; he had only one short solo part, which was nonetheless part of the larger fabric.) After the suite, there came a series of pieces from Azerbaijan. Some were introduced by various members of the orchestra, none of whom had foreign accents. Ma introduced the main vocalist of the evening, Alim Qasimov, who sang with true pitch and conveyed great emotion even though we could not of course understand his words. The style of singing involved elaborate and rapid decorations much in the manner used in chanting The Koran.

The percussion section delighted the audience with a work called "Once We Were&" The most articulate of the drums was the tabla, but all of them elevated the energy of the program with fascinating rhythms and amazing virtuosity. Other combinations included voice and a kind of bamboo flute (shakuhachi) in a sorrowful number in which the two players walked slowly around the darkened stage. The Suite ended with a traditional Romanian "Song of the River Olt." Somehow the transition into a gypsy-like dance carried tremendous joy, bringing tears to my eyes.

Some of the works were written by orchestra members, including the longest of the whole program. Written by Kayhan Kalhor (kemancheh), "The Silent City" was the closest to a minimalist or New Age piece, beginning very slowly and softly, and gradually morphing into livelier rhythms. It got a grand ovation, which was well deserved. The last work on the printed program, "Air to Air," was written for the group and included a huge marimba played by two percussionists.

To standing ovations, the group played two encores, which were not introduced. A second program by The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma was scheduled for the next evening, also sold out.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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