Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road Ensemble bring a world of amazing music to Hill Auditorium

Silkroad Ensemble

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

Some time ago, a pianist buddy of mine went to the train station to pick up a cellist she was to play with. Unable to find her, she went to a gas station nearby and asked if anyone there had seen a woman with a cello. “What’s a cello?” asked the person she questioned.

Post-superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who may be the best proselytizer ever for an instrument, that’s an outmoded question. And with shows like Saturday evening’s by Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the questions: “What’s a kamancheh? What’s a shakuhachi? What’s a gaita? may be equally done for.

Promoting the cross-fertilization of the world’s cultures, musical and otherwise, is the goal of the Silk Road Project Ma has directed since he founded it in 1998. Saturday he and ensemble members from 8 countries were on hand not only to play for rapturous patrons in a sold-out Hill Auditorium, but to receive the University Musical Society Distinguished Artist Award, which goes to Ma and the Silk Road Project this year.

This year marks the 18th that UMS has given out the award to individuals and ensembles of international stature who also have strong ties to the performance scene here. And Saturday’s concert was part of a broader event, the Ford Honors Program and Gala, proceeds from which support UMS education and community engagement activities.

The concert marked Ma’s 11th UMS appearance; the Silk Road ensemble last appeared here for two performances in 2009.

Like the world travelers they are, Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble are never twice the same. So the opening “Silk Road Suite,” an ensemble staple that introduces the players and their instruments in a sort of musical road trip, had new elements since their last visit here, like Giovanni Sollima’s “La Camera Bianca.” And no one could have minded rehearing its riotous and rhythmically exhilarating conclusion, the “Turceasca” that is the signature piece of the amazing gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks. With the addition of Cristina Pato, a bagpiper like no other—she plays and looks like a siren; that girl can wail!—the piece took on a wilder character yet.

It’s probably true that a lot of folks in the audience came to see (and hear) Ma. And see him—and hear him—we did. But it was Ma as Member of the Band who was on stage, just jamming and having a wonderful time, as were they all.

That wasn’t really a disappointment in this musically rich concert.

In part, that’s because as much as we like to hear Ma as soloist, we do know what a cello sounds like and looks like. Ditto a violin, a viola or a bass. But the bamboo flute (shakuhachi), with its sound of the wind, is less familiar. So, too, the Persian kamancheh, an upright fiddle with a plaintively beautiful sound that’s different from the strings in our Western orchestral family. And there’s the sheng, a mouth organ like a mini-cathedral you can play; and the pipa, a Chinese lute; and the India tabla drums.

And the Silk Road Ensemble offers a chance to hear them all, Western and Eastern, alone and in concert, in music that draws on traditional sources—and on the talents of composers within the ensemble and without who make new works for them so that the beat goes on.

It’s the conjunction of all these instruments, the rubbing up against each other of traditions as diverse as American jazz and Indian ragas (as in Vijay Iyer’s “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion”), that give spice to so many of the compositions the Silk Road Ensemble plays.

In Jia Daquin’s “The Prospect of Colored Desert,” percussionist (and University of Michigan music faculty member) Joe Gramley, mallets in hand at the xylophone, created a magical foundation on which pipa and sheng and cello and violin joined together in a sort of operatic dance—a Chinese operatic dance. One wanted to see the film that would go along with the music.

The evening’s most beautiful work, perhaps, was ensemble member Colin Jacobsen’s composition “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged,” in which the Persian kamancheh, and its extraordinary player, Kayhan Kalhor, played a starring role. Slowly, other instruments, including Jacobsen’s violin, add their voices to the kamancheh’s longing, songlike melody, ringing variations on its theme until the tempo quickens and we suddenly find ourselves rehearing the song as an upbeat folk tune—from what country, who can tell?—and then with jazzy accents.

Three pieces from John Zorn’s “Book of Angels,” arranged for the ensemble by three of its members (Shane Shanahan; Johnny Gandelsman; and Pato), concluded the concert; fabulous to listen to, they also told you just about everything you needed to know about the group. Like how sensuous and sultry their music can be when, in playing the music of a downtown New York composer, they use bamboo flute and kamancheh and pipa and bass to turn Hill into a sort of imaginary Silk Road night club for a moment or two. Like how a pipa player can trade plucking his instrument for clapping his hands like the best flamenco backup man—why not, when a player like Pato is turning her bagpipe into the best trumpet ever, all the while belly dancing to the beat?

You ask: if bamboo flute and bass, and pipa and Western percussion can all get along, and invent new stuff so that they make good music together, why can’t we do the same in the world? That may be just the point of the Silk Road Ensemble. And it may be why, in a wild round-dance of an encore, Ma was happy to trade his cello for a tambourine.