The Virginia Arts Festival presents Yo-Yo Ma and the "Silk Road Ensemble," in concert at Chrysler Hall, Feb. 25.
"Make music, not war" was easily the idealized subtext of the eagerly anticipated appearance of celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his "Silk Road Ensemble," performing as a prelude to the April opening of the Virginia Arts Festival's 10th season.
Ma formed the Silk Road Project in 1998 "...to promote collaboration and a sense of community among institutions, artists, and audiences who share a fascination with the transcultural artistic organization symbolized by the ancient Silk Road" which, some 2100 years ago, extended from Japan and China across Central Asia to India, Iran, and the regions associated with the Mediterranean Sea.
The project evolved into the Ensemble, which first performed in 2000, at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. Reportedly, the initial invitees came together, mostly with no common language or common musical scale. Yet, they assembled to make music. And, in making music, they discovered commonalities among their individual cultures, elements that spoke to the humanity of man. Since the start of the Ensemble, it has continued to explore the relationship between music, culture, instruments, and musicians. It has continued to embrace musicians from throughout the Silk Road region, all of whom have joined together to make music, despite the wars and unrest that have been and currently are plaguing their countries.
The power of music to create unity is great, a theme which prompted such paraphrased comments in the Chrysler Hall lobby as "if we can collectively make music like this, we might not have wars." It may sound like a John Lennon sentiment, but when you look at the extensive roster of "Silk Road" musicians, many of whom come from countries that just plain don't get along, and see them working together, as a community, you can't help but think of possibilities. Sure, it's just music, and, sure, the seriousness of the global conflicts outweigh the silliness of optimism. But, when you explore more thoroughly the "Silk Road Project" and the "Silk Road Ensemble," one wonders that there's more at play, than play. Or so it seems.
The evening's event featured performers from China, Israel, Iran, Switzerland, and the United States, performing music from Armenia, Persia, Romania, Iran, Lebanon, and the America, a true united nations of music. And the instruments were equally diverse, ranging from the familiar violin and bass to such exotics as the pipa (wooden lute), santur (zither), bamboo flute, and the Persian drum. Some sat on chairs, some sat on the floor on carpets. All were entertaining and intent on carrying out the mission of the Project.
While political statements are not openly part of the parcel, they do find eloquent reference points for the present and past. For example, Komitas Vartabed's somewhat plaintive "Armenian Folk Songs" suggest dedication to the Armenians who were exterminated, arrested, or deported in 1915. Iranian Kayhan Kalhor's commissioned work, "Silent City," with its somber, meditative beauty and Kurdish themes, attests to the "nation-less nation" feel Kurds have living in western Iran, eastern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey. Yet, beyond this, Kalhor suggests that "Silent City" pays hommage to all who have been destroyed due to human selfishness.
There were, however, cheerier themes at play. Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil's oddly named "Arabian Waltz," with anything but waltz-like patterns, was filled with infectious rhythms, jazzy improvisational moments, and exotic sounds that pulsed and drew the audience thoroughly under its spell. Similarly was "Turceasca" a wonderfully appealing take on a traditional Turkish folk song, as rendered by a Romanian gypsy band. American Lou Harrison's "Concerto fro Pipa and Strings" was designed as a showpiece for the pipa and its player, Chinese virtuoso Wu Man, who literally dazzled with her skill and technique.
Throughout the program, the worldly performers played as one team, no star treatment here. Yo-Yo Ma was on equal billing with the likes of his music compatriots-all doing their individual parts to share and communicate through music the universality of man. The packed house was readily captivated by the performance. It was ready and willing to be transported across the sands of time and treated to a musical ride that was wildly received with standing ovations throughout the evening and lots of shouts and whistles of approval at the program's end. One could not imagine a more upbeat, successful and educational celebration for the Festival's 10th year. It bodes well for the season, which runs from April 26 through June 4 and features an expanded Festival Williamsburg, May 17-20, and five consecutive days of performances at the Ferguson Center for the Arts, starting May 31, and concluding with the Festival Finale, June 4. Without doubt, there's something for everyone and plenty of that to go around!Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times