Silk Road Ensemble and cellist Yo-Yo Ma

03.14.09
Silk Road Ensemble
Ann Arbor News

Like voyagers long away in exotic lands, the Silk Road Ensemble and cellist Yo-Yo Ma made Hill Auditorium their caravansarai Friday evening, ready to share the marvels from their travels.

And, in the first of two different programs they presented this weekend under University Musical Society auspices, Ma - a member of the band, not a starring presence on this occasion, though his enthusiasm glowed brightly even from the back of the stage - and his fellow troupe members worked their usual magic of musical cross-cultural pollination.

There was Jewish-Peruvian-Chinese music; there was gypsy music; there was Azerbaijani opera and a composition based on ancient Sanskrit texts. And to play all this an orchestra in which Indian tabla drums met Western violins and Persian kamanchehs and Chinese pipas and shengs. There was also some "Go Blue!" going around: percussionist Joseph Gramley is a University of Michigan faculty member; fellow percussionist Mark Suter has U-M ties, too; and Gabriela Lena Frank, whose "Ritmos Anchinos" led the show, received her doctorate from the U-M music school.

Gramley, speaking to the audience, used the word "hybridity" to describe the Silk Road's mix of traditions and its devotion to both old and new. A $50 word for sure, but it's spot on to describe what transpired Friday.

It certainly applied to "Ritmos Anchinos," a evocative, witty and timbrally rich composition in which Frank explores her Jewish-Chinese-Peruvian heritage. Chinese Pipa and sheng - instruments she finds similar to Andean instruments - are highlighted; Pipa player Wu Man and sheng player Wu Tong were thrilling.

Evan Ziporyn's "Sulvasutra" highlighted tabla, with tabla player Sandeep Das offering an explanation the work's evocation of a universe in formation. The work's unearthly sonorities were as interesting as the drumming.

"Turceasca," the signature piece of the amazing gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, made a zippy and rhythmically exhilarating close to the first half in an arrangement by wizard Osvaldo Golijov.

But as good as the first half was, it was the singing of the father and daughter team of Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimov in the second half that was the most stirring. It didn't much matter that the supertitles for "Layla and Majnun," the 1908 Azerbaijani "Romeo and Juliet" that Silk Road member Jonathan Gandelsman arranged for the orchestra, were prettier to look at than they were easy to read. Masters of the melismatic mugham style of singing, the two express the soul.