Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble make journey to Blossom rewarding

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Ancient Chinese battles. Hindu creation legends. Protest songs from 18th-century Sardinia. These are not the provinces of the Cleveland Orchestra.

They are, however, the stock-in-trade of the group presented by the orchestra Saturday night at Blossom Music Center: The Silk Road Ensemble, who travel the country peddling music and ideas from around the globe.

For them and their leader, Yo-Yo Ma, for whom Saturday's amplified concert marked his first appearance at Blossom in 20 years, there's no such thing as too exotic. Neither, judging by their performance, is dullness even a possibility.

Everyone who attended the nearly sold-out show and stood his ground against the unpredictable weather will have an opinion about which piece was the finest. Plenty, too, are bound to do follow-up research on the many native instruments employed alongside Ma's cello and other Western orchestral tools.

For some, no doubt, the highlight was the Indian tabla work, "Shristi," a lively series of looping, lurching drum patterns recently composed by Silk Road member Sandeep Das, who introduced the piece and exchanged pleasant banter with Ma.

Others probably gravitated to Galician bagpiper Cristina Pato, whose "Caronte" -- inspired by the Greek myth of the boatman in the underworld -- served as the show's dramatic opening, with the artist strolling on stage and sounding plaintive sighs over rattling percussion and resonant string drones.

But for this listener, the musical tales from ancient China, arranged by Silk Road wind player Wu Tong, were the most compelling, evoking vibrant scenes of peace and strife.

"Wine Madness," on the first half, portrayed a third-century poet who avoided an Imperial request by staying drunk for 60 days. What began as a pastoral scene for strings and Chinese mouth organ, with a guitar evoking chirping birds, devolved into a delirious, prolonged frenzy.

Far more gruesome was the event depicted by "Ambush from Ten Sides." Between furious drumming, heart-pounding displays of musical bravado, clanging dissonance, and the mournful warbling of the pipa, the sense of an epic battle with many victims was inescapable.

Most inclusive culturally were "Air to Air" and "The Taranta Project," contemporary chamber pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Giovanni Sollima.

Golijov's amounted to a brisk world tour, including the Sardinian protest song, a Christian-Arab lament, and the spine-tingling sound of xylophone trills accompanying prayers taped in Chiapas, Mexico.

Sollima's, meanwhile, stood as the clearest proof of Silk Road's wide purview. The imaginative piece threw string and percussion players into a rhythmic fusion of classical, rock and ethnic idioms, showcasing one player in a virtuoso round of leg- and chest-thumping, precisely the sort of thing you'd never catch an orchestra doing.