Music review, The Silk Road Ensemble at Orchestra Hall

Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble continued their weeklong series of cross-cultural dialogues with another stimulating program of discoveries Friday at Orchestra Hall.

If Ma's star power is what's needed to pull in a large, enthusiastic, diverse public and make Symphony Center the truly inclusive arts center it aspires to be, the Chicago Symphony may wish to make these Silk Road concerts an annual event.

The group's message—that there is an artistic oneness to world music that leaps across centuries and national boundaries—was implicit in its spirited and committed readings of five pieces from its repertory. Three of the countries connected by the ancient Silk Road—Mongolia, Armenia and China—were represented by recent chamber works featuring voices and ethnic instruments. Tying a neat cross-referential bow on the agenda was Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor, which was inspired by sounds of the Javanese gamelan the young Ravel heard at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris.

A few of Silk Road's commissioned pieces suffer from a Western slickness that removes them somewhat from their ethnic inspirations. Not so "Legend of Herlen" (2000) by the Mongolian composer Byambasuren Sharav, which surrounds a traditional "long song" with a horsehead fiddle, piano, trombones and percussion.

The music goes from delicate to thunderous, and it's often hard to distinguish the wailing, vibrating vocal sounds produced by the astonishing Mongolian long song vocalist Khongorzul Ganbaatar from the instrumental accompaniment. Among those joining Ma (playing the nasal-sounding morin khuur) were CSO trombonists Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy and Charles Vernon.

But the most wonderful piece on the program was "The Sun, the Wine, and the Wind of Time" (1998) by the Armenian composer Vache Sharafyan. The score derived much of its ineffable sadness from the duduk, an oboe-like instrument whose quavery, throaty sounds were framed by piano (Joel Fan), violin (Colin Jacobsen) and cello (Ma).

The seamless evolution of moods and textures—from soft, somber lines made up of pained intervals, to more violent outbursts, back to mournful lines—made it entirely absorbing to the ear and mind.

A sorrowful but hopeful mood also pervaded the Chinese composer Chen Yi's "Ning" (2001), her subtly powerful lament for a homeland ravaged by war. Her "storyteller" here was the amazing pipa (lute) player Wu Man, whose plucking sounds eerily rose and fell against, and finally merged with, the agitated statements of violin and cello.

The Japanese composer Michio Mamiya's "Five Finnish Folk Songs" (1977), for piano and cello, took the Silk Road's transnational vision to yet another level, dressing simple melodies in hues more French Impressionist than specifically Scandinavian or Japanese.

The piece made a nice coupling with a tight, elegant, even poetic account of the Ravel trio by Jacobsen, Ma and Fan. Here, as elsewhere, these musical Marco Polos could do no wrong.

The Silk Road Ensemble will wrap up its local residency with entirely different programs at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Symphony Center. Miss them and you will deny yourself a musical odyssey like no other.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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