Silk Road brings it home at Tanglewood

06.26.12
Silk Road Ensemble
The Bershire Eagle

By Andrew L. Pincus

LENOX -- It's been 12 years since the Silk Road Ensemble had its birth at Tanglewood, Yo-Yo Ma told the audience, "and now we're teenagers, so watch out!"

Like teenagers, Ma's 17-member troupe was rambunctious on its return to Tangle wood on Friday night -- rambunctious, athletic and just about manic. All that energy, all that drumming, all that jamming, vocalizing and danc ing, all those improvisations, all those costumes and colorful shirts, all those whoops, wails and wiggles: whew.

Twelve years ago, the Silk Road Ensemble was a ragtag workshop group. Honed by residencies (including returns to Tanglewood) along with scholarly and educational activities, the performances have developed into a polished, almost slick show, complete with amplification and lighting effects.

Teeming virtuosity marked each performance. Probing movie cameras -- they came from the West Coast and Europe, Ma said -- furnished a distracting side show of their own.

The Ozawa Hall program, repeated Sunday night, informally opened the Tanglewood season. As is usual for this international assemblage of performers, composers and arrangers, the repertoire ranged across the old trading route from southern Europe to China.

The most riveting piece came from India: "Shristi," by the Indian tabla (drum) master Sandeep Das. He joined four other percussionists in his re-creation of the story of Shiva's creation of the universe. The driving yet intricate rhythms suggested a crowded, joyous universe, not the largely empty one given us by astronomers.

Another piece, "Ascending Bird," based on a Persian folk melody, retold the Icarus-like Persian story of a bird that flies into the sun. Globalization existed in myth long before corporations discovered its benefits.

Actually, the evening's nine extended pieces eluded categories such as "most riveting." Most were arrangements of traditional pieces, and -- especially in these wild, often improvisatory performances -- all seemed to be in an exotic language sometimes as much modern as ancient, Western as Eastern.

For example: The Sicilian Giovanni Sollima's "Taranta Project," a commission, mixed a traditional string quartet with heavy percussion, which led to a bout of frenetic body-drumming by Joseph Gramley.

Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, an Uzbek, composed an unearthly "ghost" trio, "Qasida," for Ma, on the cello, and Kayhan Kalhor, a master of the kamancheh (Persian fiddle). The "ghost" was a tape of Kalhor's own melodies, on which the live players improvised.

The finale was "Turceasca," an arrangement of Gypsy tunes that got more and more crazed until pandemonium set in. For a bonus, a bagpiper (female) and player (male) of the sheng, or Chinese mouth organ, faced off in a witty lovers' spat.

Quiet moments were few, but when they came, Wu Man, soloed beguilingly the on the pipa (Chinese lute).

In spoken interludes, Ma paid tribute to Tanglewood for its "rootedness and openness" in welcoming his troupe both then and now. These are qualities, he said, that the Silk Road Ensemble also embodies. Don't forget the energy.