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Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble is an honest cross-cultural exchange

Silkroad Ensemble
The Straight

By Jessica Werb

Imagine a potluck where, instead of your usual tuna-casserole- and tabbouleh-salad-toting neighbours, Michelin-star-rated chefs appear on your doorstep, and you’ve got a sense of the delights offered up Sunday night by the Silk Road Ensemble.

A collective of renowned performers from across the globe, assembled under the artistic direction of cello phenomenon Yo-Yo Ma, the group’s mission is to engage in cross-cultural exchanges and commission new works for eclectic groupings of instruments. It’s all very noble-sounding, but it was plain to see that, at the heart of it, it’s also about having a bloody good time.

When the 15 members of the current iteration of the group strode onto the Orpheum stage for the final performance of its West Coast tour, Ma humbly entering last, the ensemble immediately launched into an intoxicating arrangement of a traditional Persian folk song, “Ascending Bird”. More delightful than the work’s driving, ecstatic beat and repetitive, glissando-filled melodic lines was the apparent delight the musicians took in performing it. On instruments ranging from the Persian bowed kamancheh , played by Kayhan Kalhor, and the Japanese shakuhachi flute, played by Kojiro Umezaki, to the more familiar violin, these technically astounding artists performed with a joyful abandon that was irresistible.

It was a rollicking start to the program, which moved between moments of introspective contemplation, as in virtuoso pipa player Wu Man’s work Night Thoughts, and sensual abandon, courtesy of the alluring Cristina Pato’s arrangements of traditional Galician bagpipe tunes. (Incidentally, who knew bagpipes could be so incredibly sexy?)

Particularly engaging was Kalhor’s composition Silent City, a work for string quartet, kamancheh, and percussion that commemorates the Kurdish village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, the site of a government-led poison-gas massacre in 1988. The piece, much of which is improvised, begins with a dull, haunting drone that slowly, over time, blossoms into melancholy phrases and, eventually, bustling optimism: a city returning to life.

Also of note was composer Osvaldo Golijov’s culture-mashing Air to Air, which employed the entire group and taped sounds to invoke, by turns, a Sicilian protest song, prayers to Our Lady of Guadalupe and songs from the Christian Arab Easter service. The final work on the program, it ended in a frenzied kind of mating dance between the shakuhachi and Galician bagpipes, filling the hall with a joyful cacophony.

Those looking for flaws might be tempted to label the Silk Road’s music as a superficial exercise in “world music” that exoticizes the cultures from which it draws—but really, only a humourless grump would do so. To see the ensemble live is to see music-making the way it ought to be: collaborative, earnest, and, above all, joyful. In a word: delectable.