Entertainment » Music

The Silk Road Ensemble

by Robert Israel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 10, 2009
Yo-Yo Ma performs as a member of the Silk Road Ensemble.
Yo-Yo Ma performs as a member of the Silk Road Ensemble.  

If you could listen in on a composer's imagination, let's say you could plug your iPod earpiece directly into their mind, what would their imagination sound like?

Yo-Yo Ma posed this question on March 8 during the first of two Celebrity Series of Boston concerts of the Silk Road Ensemble at Symphony Hall. Known for his sonorous cello and mischievous smile, Ma takes delight in serving up a full range of musical offerings, from a John Williams composition performed with an ensemble at President Obama's inauguration, or accompanying James Taylor on his recent album that featured a stirring version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne."

The Silk Road Ensemble, of which he is artistic director, is composed a multitude of international players who create musical magic with strings, percussion, and a host of ancient instruments from China, India, Japan and the Caucasus. They succeed by not only plugging directly into the imaginations of the composers - most of them unknown to audiences in the States - but to listeners as well.

In the second selection, a composition by Angel Lam titled "Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain," the audience was treated to the sounds of that multi-layered city of Hong Kong, where traffic noises and rainfall and misty harbor islands conspire to create a dreamscape. Kojiro Umezaki played the shakuhachi, an eerie instrument that dates from the 15th century. It makes a most hypnotic sound, softer than a panpipe but just as breathy, with a range that touches the earth in one breath before soaring heavenward in the next breath. This shakuhachi, and the beguiling composition by Angel Lam, calls to listeners from a faraway place in softly probing and enticing mysteries that are never fully unraveled.

If you could plug into a composer’s imagination, what would it sound like?

The musical numbers lend themselves easily to storytelling, another ancient art form that creates a strong cohesion with the instruments. The music is colorful, sensuous, and rhythmic. It is easy to envisage dancers moving across a stage, or in front of a caravan, by a campfire, or in a grand and graceful room where listeners, sitting cross-legged on tatami mats, gently swoon to these aural pleasures. The hypnotic effect of these instruments cannot be understated. The pipa, a short-necked wooden lute from China, was played majestically by Wu Man, and it took me back to a theatrical performance I attended many years ago in Japan where a troupe of kabuki players mimed their disconsolate lives while musicians plunked away on the pipa's quietly insistent strings.

During the second half of the performance, the ensemble gathered to accompany Kojiro Umezaki who narrated a series of Zen koans titled "Paths of Parables," by the composer Dimitri Yanov-Tanovsky. The stories were remarkable not for what they said but for what they left unsaid, and while one parable mined the depths of humility and humor, it left this listener with questions about what is heard and what is often lost in our daily communications.

It should be noted that while Yo-Yo Ma may be the name emblazoned on the marquee, he is really a member of the ensemble as opposed to a featured soloist. His cello, held close to his torso, has strings originally fashioned from a gut of an animal; when his bow, fashioned from horse hairs, is drawn across these strings, the result is a sound that mimics the human voice. While it would be wonderful to listen to a recital by this gifted musician, he prefers to be seen (and heard) as a member of the ensemble.

All the musicians were remarkable, with warm kudos going out to Sandeep Das for his playful and teasing tabla, to Wu Tong for his entertaining sheng and bawu, and to the aforementioned Wu Man for her beguiling pipa that enticed listeners to delve into deep dreams.

The Silk Road Ensemble travels extensively, collects music everywhere they go, and brings back their interpretations to global audiences. They are musical ambassadors, and with dissonant and disparate pieces they unite us, returning us to inner harmonies and to the still unexplored areas of our own lives and imaginations.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.


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