There are no words for what Silk Road Ensemble creates

03.17.09
Silk Road Ensemble
Pioneer Press

If you've come to think of that old saw about music being the universal language as so much Pollyanna pie in the sky, the Silk Road Ensemble might sweep aside your cynicism.

Ten years ago, the world's most famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, formed a group that explores intersections between Eastern and Western musical traditions, taking its name from the ancient trade route that linked Europe and Asia. Despite boasting two native Minnesotans in its ranks, the Silk Road Ensemble didn't make its Twin Cities debut until Monday night.

And the almost-capacity crowd heard some of the most inspiring, emotional and energetic music that's been offered at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall in quite some time. While Yo-Yo Ma's name was surely a major draw, he was a deferential presence all evening, not even taking a prominent solo until near evening's end. Nevertheless, it was a thrilling concert, one that tapped into traditions ranging from Peru to Bali to Turkey to Azerbaijan.

But the Silk Road Ensemble doesn't just deliver dispatches from distant lands in their original form. It often uses instruments that might be quite foreign to the culture that spawned the style. For example, band member Wu Man is a master of the pipa, a Chinese relative of the guitar. But she can adapt it to any style and produce a sound that the most expert rock guitar shredder would envy.

On Monday, the group explored a Peruvian/Chinese hybrid created by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, then spiced Balinese gamelan with the tablas of India. But, for a pure adrenaline rush, the concert's high point was an arrangement of Sapo Perapaskero's "Turceasca," in which a kind of gypsy jam session broke out on stage.

The second half of the evening was given over to a 1908 Azerbaijani opera called "Layla and Majnun." It's based upon a "Romeo and Juliet"-style story that predates Shakespeare by about a millennium. As the 14-piece ensemble created a hypnotic backdrop behind them, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova delivered impassioned wails and searing, soulful singing, conveying the anguish of separation with breathtaking intensity and grief.

Tonight, the Silk Road Ensemble performs a different set of works. But, if Monday is any indication, expect a passionate performance that might leave you speechless. But that's OK: This is music that says things for which words are insufficient.