Review: Silk Road Ensemble exudes joy at Tuesday Musical concert

03.17.13
Silk Road Ensemble
Akron Beacon Journal

By Kerry Clawson

Thursday night, the Silk Road Ensemble brought world cultures together in an exhilarating synthesis of music at E.J. Thomas Hall.

The acclaimed international ensemble, led by cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, last performed in Akron in 2004 with Tuesday Musical and has since played as part of the summer Blossom Music Festival. Tuesday Musical patrons heard Ma perform solo at E.J. Thomas Hall in 2007, and Thursday night they packed even the upper balcony to hear more of Ma in collaboration with 14 other master musicians from around the world.

It was a signature program for Tuesday Musical, celebrating its 125th anniversary, and the whole concert felt like a celebration, from the full-throttle abandon of Roma gypsy music to the joy of Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, written by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer last year for the ensemble.

The Akron performance marked the start of the Silk Road Ensemble’s six-city concert tour that ends March 23 in Nashville, Tenn.

The affable Ma let his colleagues do most of the narration, referring to himself as “the other cellist in the group” along with Eric Jacobsen. Earlier, Ma had excused himself from an afternoon outreach program with 500 students at E.J. Thomas Hall because he wasn’t feeling well. By Thursday night, though, he appeared to be in fine form.

The Silk Road Ensemble integrates the sounds of string instruments familiar to Westerners, including the contrabass, cello, viola and violin, with ancient woodwind and string instruments from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The close-knit, East-meets-West ensemble blended as one with masterful fluidity and its smiling members exhibited an obvious joy in sharing their cultural traditions.

The Silk Road — a historic series of land and sea trade routes that allowed interaction among cultural groups — serves as a metaphor for this ensemble, which strives to connect artists and audiences around the world. The Akron program began with Side In Side Out by shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player Kojiro Umezaki, which he wrote to feature an assortment of instruments from the 15-member ensemble.

The eclectic piece, being played for an audience for only the second time ever, introduced a number of the instruments’ distinctive sounds and featured an extended duet between Umezaki and Yang Wei on pipa, a plucked Chinese lute.

The music shifted gears for the more intimate, mysterious Atashgah. The ancient-sounding strains were written by violinist Colin Jacobsen after he visited kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor’s homeland in Iran and visited a 3,000-year-old fire temple, or atashgah.

Jacobsen said the ensemble’s goal was to “capture a sense of time and place,” and for a whole evening, they swept the Akron audience to other worlds. That included the lusty folk music of the Roma, or gypsies of Romania, played as part of a Silk Road Suite that had lively Galician bagpipe player Christina Pato, the only woman in the group, dancing and yelling out with exuberance.

Who would have thought that you could jam on the bagpipe? The charismatic Pato did just that in the wildly jazzy Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, where she actually played the bagpipe and piano simultaneously. The piece also featured the unexpectedly exciting tones of Hu Jianbing on the sheng, a seventeen-pipe Chinese reed instrument that has sustaining, organ-like sounds.

Indian table player Sandeep Das said performing Playlist allows the ensemble to improvise, creating a different musical recipe every night.

In one of the most beautiful moments on the program, the dynamic Umezaki served as the narrator for Tsuru no Ongaeshi, telling the ancient Japanese folk tale “Repayment from a Crane.” It was a treat to see the flute player and Ma, with the help of percussionist Shanahan, bringing this story to life through their instruments, beginning with the sound of snow falling.

“Have you heard the sound of snow falling?” Umezaki asked.

In this tale, a crane caught in a trap is freed by a man and the crane transforms into a girl, who goes to the man’s house. As the girl knocked on the door, Ma went tap-tap-tap on the body of his cello. The girl, who is adopted by the man and his wife, secretly weaves a magical, magnificent fabric to help her new parents out financially, but at great cost.

This celebration was a night of contrasts, ending the program with the ensemble presenting variations on avant-garde composer John Zorn’s Suite from Book of Angels. Layers of funky, syncopated rhythms were performed in arrangements done by ensemble members Shane Shanahan (percussion), Shanir Blumenkranz, who wasn’t present, and Pato.

The Silk Road Ensemble offered two encores, the first a duet between virtuosos Kalhor and Das, where the two were deeply attuned to each other in rhythmic dialogue. For the final encore, whose title was not announced, the whole ensemble jammed, with the beaming Ma switching to percussion.