Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble at the Mann: Beyond borders

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

The numerous far-flung elements of Yo-Yo Ma's musical existence might not have been expected to come together, but come together they have. The cellist - who plays many standard concertos, premieres a new one every season or so, and seems never to have met a musical ethnicity he doesn't like - brings his genre-blurring Silk Road Ensemble to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, with names that also turn up at his orchestral concerts.

That could mean that one side or the other of the Ma equation is getting tame. But among the less-familiar composers on the program is Giovanni Sollima, whose Silk Road piece The Taranta Project springs from a singular temperament: The Sicilian cellist/composer's performances on YouTube show him playing with clenched teeth and extraordinary velocity - far beyond the extravagant physicality for which Ma was criticized in his early years.

"He makes me look like a pussycat!" said Ma, 54, sounding proud and almost relieved. "He's very elusive. He goes silent for months at a time. You just can't find him. He's a supervirtuoso of the cello. He studied with [the eminent] Antonio Janigro but plays like a jazz musician and is part performance artist. He has no fear, and that's unusual in the classical world - we're all terrified of wrong notes."

These days, Sollima is Ma's kind of colleague, further undermining the image of a rarefied classical artist moving only in the most civilized circles. These days Ma is one degree of separation from musicians like this, intensively surrounding himself with the ever-shifting personnel of the Silk Road Ensemble, whose members think about music as cultural DNA rather than in terms of the genre caste system of the music industry.

The group's idea over the last decade has been to emulate the kind of cultural cross-pollination that occurred in centuries past when the silk trade opened the East to the West. Initially, critics flipped through the group's fancy press kits puzzling over what such an endeavor could possibly sound like, and marveling at how Ma was going to any lengths to ward off boredom.

Now, however, the group has toured 23 countries, has five recordings - with titles such as New Impossibilities and Off the Map - and isn't far removed from the ethnic fusions of the Kronos Quartet, which augments its string contingent with musicians from the Middle East and Asia.

Yet Ma's introduction to the elusive Sollima came not from the Silk Road but - in an indication of how classical music is changing from the inside out - from British concert pianist Kathryn Stott, a sometime chamber-music collaborator with Ma who seems a perfectly proper mainstream musician when she's playing Chopin.

"Somehow she became totally excited by Sollima," said Ma. "She's been pursuing him for years."

These days, a musician would have to lead a blinkered life to avoid such pan-nationality musicians. Sure, composer Osvaldo Golijov was noticed as a University of Pennsylvania student in the 1980s, but in the last decade he's become an international sensation with works reflecting his Argentine/Jewish upbringing. His contribution to Wednesday's program is Air to Air , which juxtaposes 18th-century Mexican music, Sardinian songs, and the Christian Arab Easter service. Silk Road's newish Off the Map disc features Ritmos Anchinos by ensemble member Gabriela Lena Frank, reflecting her Peruvian/Jewish/Chinese ancestry, not to mention her Los Angeles upbringing.

The pieces aren't necessarily showcases for Ma. "I'm following what members are doing," he said the other day in an hour-long phone interview. "That's part of joy. I'm not directing. It's more about seeing how people want things to be and then letting the right thing emerge."

The seeds of all this began decades ago when Harvard-educated Ma, born in Paris to Chinese parents, arrived at the top of his profession while still in his 20s - and in a world with too few established cello pieces to sustain a long, inquisitive career. He learned dozens of new concertos that had been written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich, then set out to commission his own, culminating in a memorable 1996 disc of new ones by Richard Danielpour , Stephen Albert, and Leon Kirchner with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Though the Silk Road Project - the ensemble's umbrella organization - might seem a logical outgrowth of such activities, Ma had intended to take this direction for only a year. Yet reasons kept arising for the group to continue, such as the discovery of more like-minded composers or the possibilities of a 2007 Chicago residency that included collaborations with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, and 70 cultural and community organizations. This season, the ensemble is in residence at Harvard.

Though Ma is one of a handful of genuine stars in the classical recording world - last Christmas, Sony released a lavish 90-disc boxed set titled Yo-Yo Ma: Thirty Years Outside the Box - he isn't eager to litter the world with Silk Road products "unless what's happening really demands it," he said. "There's an unbelievable amount of product out there. When you make volume after volume of something, it just sits on your shelf. We're trying to transform people's lives through ideas."

Another development: Over the ensemble's life span, the hegemony of long-standing symphony orchestras has been challenged by groups that don't follow the established prototype, often in the interest of meeting other-than-Western music on its own terms. That's not news in contemporary circles: Philadelphia's Orchestra 2001 and Network for New Music morph radically from one concert to the next, as does a relative newcomer called Intercultural Journeys, whose core of Jewish and Arab musicians might be augmented, on any given night, by an American Indian guest.

The profile of such activities, however, has risen dramatically. Though Ma's Silk Road group usually puts 20 or so musicians onstage, it's a collective of 60, many of them increasingly influential. Also significant is the emergence of standard ensembles with nonstandard repertoire and attitude, such as the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the chamber orchestra the Knights, which touts its spirit of "radical inquiry."

If there's a musical summit in all of this, Ma suggests he reached it in May in deeply familiar territory: a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with whom he premiered Cello Concerto by Silk Road member Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, 47, who often uses conventional instruments to evoke the exotic sounds of the Islam-tinged Central Asian environs of his native Uzbekistan.

"It's one of the best concerts I've had the honor of playing," Ma said of the premiere. "He was a child of Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina," two Russian symphonic giants, "so nobody thought of him as a Silk Road composer at first. Is it classical? Silk Road? Who knows? It's devastatingly beautiful."

A taste of what he's talking about is heard in Yanov-Yanovsky's piece " . . . al niente," recorded this year by the Brooklyn Rider quartet. In it, a bedrock of string chords shifts slowly over freewheeling treble instruments that somersault as if being tossed around by a high wind. Slowly, the two elements converge at a point on a distant musical horizon, only to divide and begin another slow convergence.

Such descriptions also apply to the Silk Road Ensemble's future, which is by no means assured but seems unable to not continue. "Some of the members now pushing 40 - and a lot of them are now professors - play in orchestras or are otherwise doing their own thing," said Ma. "There's an end when the work is done. I don't think sustaining it for the sake of sustaining it is worthwhile. . . . but the problem is that cultural work is never over."