Tale of Love and Death Along the Fabled Silk Road

06.07.09
Silk Road Ensemble
The New York Times

When the Silk Road Project began a decade ago, few but its prime mover, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, had any clear idea what lay in store, and hearing him try to describe it beforehand you sometimes had to wonder about him. But his sense of timing was excellent: the project caught a wave of rising inclusiveness in Western classical music precincts - embracing pop idioms, non-Western cultures, all manner of electronics and the like - and has gone on to help feed another wave.

What the project has become most prominently is a magnet for many of the finest exponents of the various musical traditions along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route from Western Europe to Eastern Asia, and by extension, around the world. More generally it represents a hybrid approach to music making, both composition and performance. Through its multifarious activities - educational programs and publications as well as performances and recordings - the project has carved out an invaluable niche for itself on the international classical music scene.

So it has ample reason to celebrate its 10th anniversary, as it did with two concerts at Alice Tully Hall over the weekend. The culmination was a performance of the classic Azerbaijani opera "Layla and Majnun" in a "portable chamber version," as Mr. Ma called it from the stage, on Saturday evening.

This is one of the project's most ambitious efforts to date: a reduction of Uzeyir Hajibeyov's three-and-a-half-hour opera for soloists, chorus and orchestra to a 45-minute version with only the title characters and a small band. Jonathan Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, Silk Road violinists, made the arrangement for the Azerbaijani vocalists Alim Qasimov, an acclaimed master of the role of Majnun, and Fargana Qasimova, his daughter and student.

Hybridization of national styles is nothing new. Hajibeyov drew inspiration for "Layla and Majnun," which appeared in 1908, from having seen "The Barber of Seville" by Rossini (who almost a century before had operatically placed an Italian in Algiers, a Turk in Italy and whatnot). And if, as Mr. Ma rightly said, hybridization can lead to creativity, it can also lead to hokiness at times, and there was a touch of that in what remained of the orchestration here. A few odd juxtapositions of perky instrumental music with desolate song in this tale of love, separation, death and madness may have resulted in part from the compression.

None of which mattered when Mr. Qasimov or Ms. Qasimova held forth in spare, deeply expressive laments, tinged and embellished with exquisite subtlety. They sat on a raised platform, facing the audience and barely interacting in this wholly interior drama but communicated eloquently despite the total unfamiliarity of the language and the relative unfamiliarity of the vocal idiom.

The Saturday program was filled out with colorful instrumental works from 2006 by Gabriela Lena Frank ("Ritmos Anchinos") and Evan Ziporyn ("Sulvasutra") and by a three-part "Silk Road Suite" in modes Korean and Japanese, Turkish and Azerbaijani.

A program of musical storytelling on Friday evening was equally motley, notable chiefly for Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's "Paths of Parables" (2006), with music well suited to the wise and witty spoken texts; Angel Lam's "Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain" (2006), a touching memorial to a grandmother's death; and Giovanni Sollima's "Taranta Project" (2008), eliciting virtuosity in many forms, including the crude and comical. Both evenings ended with jams or Silk Road party pieces.

The performances were consistently fine and sometimes stunning. The international superstars were mostly magical: Wu Man on pipa (Chinese lute), Wu Tong on sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) on both evenings; Sandeep Das on tabla (Indian drums) and Dong-Won Kim, a Korean vocalist, on Saturday. And Yo-Yo Ma was, well, Yo-Yo Ma.