Yo-Yo Ma's ensemble unites world of talent

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
The Capital Times

By Rob Thomas

The Silk Road was a two-way street, where goods and ideas from China and India traveled west to the Mediterranean, and vice versa.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has brought that notion of trade to the realm of music with his Silk Road Ensemble. At its Madison show, the last of its 10th anniversary tour, the 15-piece ensemble resembles less a road than a bustling town square, where musicians from many nationalities combine their influences in a joyful, ongoing conversation.

For example, "Air to Air," a piece commissioned for the Ensemble, ricocheted from traditional Arab-Christian melodies to Romani gypsy music, then to a prayer song from Mexico before winding up as a protest song from 18th-century Sardinia. Another, the bombastic "Ambush From Ten Sides," built waves of crescendos and sounds of battle over the top of an ongoing musical dialogue between Jon Mendle on steel guitar and Kojiro Umezaki on a traditional Chinese lyre-like instrument called a shakuhachi.

If it sounds didactic, as if the audience needed degrees in geography and world history as well as classical music appreciation, rest assured that Sunday's show was wonderfully thrilling and accessible.

Ma is the driving force behind the ensemble, but on stage he seemed like he was among his colleagues rather than the leader of the band. Rather than being at the center of the 15 musicians, he set his cello up somewhere on the right, among them.

What helped make the most famous cellist in the world seem like just one of the band was the amazing musicianship that ran throughout the ensemble. Cristina Pato, her gaita (a Galician version of the bagpipes) coiled around her like a green serpent, dipped and swayed as her haunting dirge-like sound drifted over the polyrhythms of her composition, "Caronte."

The mournful "Caronte" quickly gave way to the joyful "Ascending Bird," which is built on a Persian folk melody but had almost a bluegrass tinge to it as well. On "Wine Madness," Chinese musician Wu Tong played the strange-looking sheng, a mouth organ capable of making single and multiple notes.

The second half of the show featured the gorgeous and intricate "The Taranta Project," as well as the jaw-dropping percussion piece "Shristi" by Indian tabla player Sandeep Das, in which each of the percussionists had to stay within a certain cycle of beats as they improvised together.

Many of the pieces in Sunday's show touched on a theme of transformation, whether it was the souls crossing the River Styx in "Caronte" or the two armies that clashed to create China in "Ambush From Ten Sides." Similarly, the Ensemble is taking a planet's worth of musical influences and creating something new and exciting out of them. This tour may be over, but the conversation continues.