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Downpours cannot dampen Silk Road Ensemble’s milestone celebration

Silkroad Ensemble
Chicago Classical Review

By Dennis Polkow

Chicago has played a central role in the development of the Silk Road Ensemble from its inception a decade ago to the present.  Several of its performers have been Chicagoans and/or have deep area connections. Also the group spent a year here premiering works, giving concerts and workshops during the citywide Silk Road Chicago project, recording two albums with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Finally, Silk Road’s artistic director and guiding light, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, was appointed creative consultant to the CSO late last year by incoming music director Riccardo Muti.

Friday evening’s Ravinia concert was a celebration not only of the tenth anniversary of the Silk Road Ensemble, but also felt like a reunion of close friends, so intimate was the connection between the audience—at a capacity level on the lawn despite heavy downpours—and the musicians.

The repertoire was largely retrospective, as befits an anniversary celebration, and most of the pieces were well known to the audience—so much so that there was a palpable expectation of what was coming next, almost like a “greatest hits” concert by a major rock band where familiar riffs, rhythms and power chords would be greeted with cheers and mayhem.  Indeed, it often felt as if the Silk Road Ensemble has become the Grateful Dead of classical and world music, a jam band for longhairs.

The group entered in darkness, Ma included, with Cristina Pato entering from one side, offering a crooning high dirge on the Gaita, a Spanish take on bagpipes, answered by recorder and eventually pipa and three percussionists in the Pato original Caronte, which became a Haydn Farewell Symphony in reverse with ensemble members entering one by one and then performing the popular group arrangement of the Persian folksong, Ascending Bird.

Interspersed with such smaller pieces were a couple of large-scale works commissioned by the group, the most effective of which was Osvaldo Golijov’s four movement Air to Air, which seeks to cross-fertilize various national styles with Western classical music by using said styles of collage-like soundscapes where Western strings are used almost as a narrator or tour guide along the way.

Particularly clever was Golijov’s juxtaposing of Arab Christian and Arab Muslim music in a manner where one is almost indistinct from the other, so common in the cultural vocabulary.

By contrast, Giovanni Solima’s The Taranta Project seemed to substitute novelty and long, episodic improvisational stretches for a sense of meaningful structure, but the crowd ate up the self-indulgent rock solo-like beat-boxing interludes like candy.

Tabla player Sandeep Das’s Shristi, a Silk Road favorite, served as the penultimate selection, each percussionist given a rhythmic pattern with a different series of beats from Indian classical music to stay within, serving as an Eastern take on Varèse’s Ionisation.

The grand finale was the group’s arrangement of the Chinese solo pipa tour de force Ambush From Ten Sides which portrays two ancient armies in battle and their coming together for what becomes the Han dynasty.

This piece, which gives the spotlight to pipa player extraordinaire and Chicagoan Yang Wei, was heard and recorded here with full orchestra, but the enthusiasm and energy of Friday’s performance was such that the work also manages to be a stirring affair as a Silk Road Ensemble piece.