Yo-Yo Ma and friends delight audience in Kingston

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble

A quartet of itinerant Silk Road fiddlers rode into Kingston's Ulster Performing Arts Center Wednesday night to celebrate East-West musical connections in a sold-out performance that drew in patrons from both banks of the Hudson River to the hall.

They came to absorb the art of master-cellist and international superstar Yo-Yo Ma, who has conceived a transcultural phenomenon called the Silk Road Project, and was accompanied by his personal Silk Road Ensemble. What we were subject to by this "gang of four" was not some solo and back-up act, but an exercise in craftsmanship that carried as epiphany, both in the execution and revelation of contemporary and classic scores.

On the road as a soloist for decades - when he was 20, Ma played with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at UPAC, where we watched as a child bride - this cellist who is ever a communicator, on and off the concert stage, began the Silk Road Project in 1998. Through the encouragement of new compositions based on musical-traditions of cultures along the ancient silk route and through their subsequent performance around the world, Ma would have audiences discover human commonality in musical diversity.

Jonathan Gandelsman, who comes to Ma's ensemble through a musical journey exotic as the silk route, is a prodigy from Russia - he studied at the Curtis Institute, performed with international musician from every genre and engages in a bond with the "outsider" quartet, Brooklyn Rider. He shared first violin with Colin Jacobsen, his confrere in the Brooklyn string band. Jacobsen performed with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur when he was 14, and returned to that orchestra to play the Brahms Double Concerto with Ma in 2006.

Violist Nicholas Cords, whom Ma calls "the sheriff" of the group, also a Brooklyn Rider man, is a sworn "advocate of music performance from a broad historic and geographical spectrum" - a philosophy he practices in solo and ensemble play with major international orchestras.

"Creds" were listed to let you know these men who look like youthful revolutionaries are artists of substance, because what they executed with Ma seemed so unweighted, so ephemeral, so amazing. They are about discovery that hits perfect by accident, not controlled definition.

Their distinguishing mark is a cosmic clarity carrying beyond sensuous tonal beauty. Thus, these searchers are his musical soulmates. The ensemble played this music like animate, multi-hued X-rays, and it made us privy to the composer's dream-vision preceding notes, so we were permeated by the compositions archetypal source.

Thus they illuminated Sulkhan Tsinatsadze's Four Georgian Miniatures for Quartet; Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian's "Testament"; and Azerbaijani pianist-composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's desolate, shifting "Oasis" for String Quartet and tape (some "oasis" - the work conveys death with anguish).
Their inciting play in Giovanni Sollima's "Frederice II from Viaggio in Italia" -- a hoe-down is a hoe down in any culture - seemed so immediate, you'd have thought they were going to lay down their instruments and dance to what they cut.

Jacobsen sat first violin in Franz Schubert's String Quartet in G Major. Talk about a holy ghost! This work was unpublished in the composer's lifetime, and the ensemble's wondrous, whispered-waking of all we recognize in Schubert's music wrapped around us like a mist.