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After 15 Years, Still a Mix of Dance and Dare

10.17.13
Silkroad Ensemble
The New York Times

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

During the first half of the Silk Road Ensemble’s concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening, the audience behaved impeccably. Its members assumed what George Bernard Shaw would have called their “churchiest expression” and held back applause until the end of each work. Then came Shane Shanahan’s percussion solo in Giovanni Sollima’s “Taranta Project.”

Jumping up from his seat behind a doumbek drum, Mr. Shanahan played complex rhythms on his own body, thumping his chest, belly and thighs and exploiting the different resonance of each body part to create melodic patterns while stomping his feet in rapid counter-rhythms. When he introduced a few ringing high-pitched slaps on the cheek, laughter rippled through the auditorium. By the time he finished in a virtuosic jester’s dance, limbs flying as he whirled back and forth between doumbek, cymbals and body parts, the audience roared with delight.

Wednesday’s concert marked the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Silk Road Ensemble by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who continues to perform with this group of international all-stars. The  breathless duet by his solo cellist Mike Block with the tabla player Sandeep Das during Vijay Iyer’s “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion” — from the ensemble’s new CD, “A Playlist Without Borders” — was another highlight of the evening. Half dance, half dare, it exemplified much of the interaction between the musicians, which turns any performance into a visual spectacle.

John Zorn’s “Suite From the Book of Angels,” in a scintillating arrangement by the Silk Road members, often felt like a group ritual, with the musicians playing by turns in opposing blocks and synchronized waves. In Jia Daqun’s intensely theatrical “Prospect of Colored Desert,” the percussionist Joseph Gramley played a tilted bass drum with powerful pawing movements.

There were quietly intense moments, too, including Angel Lam’s haunting “Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain,” in which wilting bass notes and the breathy, swirling sounds of the shakuhachi suggest a porous border between the physical and spiritual worlds. Those worlds collided, to vibrant effect, in David Bruce’s “Cut the Rug,” where the combined keening of clarinet and Galician bagpipes produced a heart-wrenching lament that gave way to the explosively joyful final dance.