Music review: Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble stop off at Walt Disney Concert Hall


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An inquisitive, restless cellist, to say nothing of classical superstar and highly sociable musician, Yo-Yo Ma can sometimes seem a serial collaborator. He premieres modern classics -– such as Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto and Lou Harrison’s “Rhymes With Silver” –- but quickly moves on, letting other cellists turn them into repertory works. A crossover sensation, he joins up with tango masters, country musicians or rock stars, ever ready for the next commercial opportunity or White House gig.

Fortunately, Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has been different. Formed in 2000, this collective now has musicians from more than 20 countries and more than 60 commissions to its credit. It is going strong musically as well as in its mission of music ambassadorship. Midway through a Texas and West Coast tour, Ma and 13 Silk Roadies dropped into Walt Disney Concert Hall Monday night and cooked.


The essence of the Silk Road Project, the umbrella organization of the ensemble, is sharing, and this is something these musicians do exceptionally well. First, they are all special. Second, they seem to like each other. Third, they like to try things out. Fourth, they know how to party.

The U.S. dominated. Ma, bassist Jeffrey Beecher and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, along with three percussionists, formed the basic Western undergirding. World musicians included Wu Man, the celebrated Chinese virtuoso of the plucked pipa; Kayhan Kalhor, an eloquent Iranian exponent of the bowed kamancheh; Shanir Blumenkranz, a laid-back oud player (and jazz musician) from Brooklyn; Kojiro Umezaki, a showy and spectacular master of the shakuhachi, an ancient wooden Japanese flute; and Cristina Pato, a red-hot Galician bagpiper.

In combining a handful of Asian, Middle Eastern and Galician instruments within a larger Western group, the Silk Road Ensemble can’t entirely avoid Orientalizing, sometimes using the pipa or shakuhachi, say, for little more than color. To bring instruments and musical traditions together, the natural instinct is to look for common ground, and the danger of watering down musical traditions cannot always be escaped.

The program was typically all over the map, this ensemble’s Silk Road is one Marco Polo would not have recognized. The first half was based on works from individual musical traditions. A haunting evocation of a Kurdish village, Kalhor’s “Silent City” married his honeyed kamancheh with silken, so the speak, strings and soft percussion. Wu played a transfixing solo pipa tune reconstructed from a 9th century Buddhist fragment she found in a cave. Pato danced and bent tones on her gaita, the Galician bagpipes.

After intermission, the ensemble turned to pieces by two of America’s most enthusiastically multicultural composers. Gabriela Lena Frank’s “¡Chayraq!: Rough Guide to a Modern Day Tawantinsuyu” -- 12 short movements for violin, cello, pipa and two percussionists –- includes charismatic couplings between the plucked strings of Ma’s cello and Wu’s pipa, as well as succulent sighs in the strings and bowled percussion.

That was followed by somber solo for Shakuhachi that had been written in 1923 to commemorate Japanese earthquake victims and that served its solemn purpose movingly once again.


Osvaldo Golijov’s “Air to Air,” which ended the program, is an over-the-top instrumental adaption of parts of his “Ayre,” a song cycle he wrote for Dawn Upshaw. Too many cultures here are courted to count in exuberant arrangements of Christian-Arab and Muslin-Arab melodies intended for musicians with different and distant backgrounds. Golijov ends with an 18th century Sardinian protest song. Umezaki, blowing his shakuhachi, and Pato, blowing her gaita, turned it into a contagious, boundary-breaking mating dance.

The Silk Road Ensemble vision of international cooperation is not what we read in our daily news reports. Theirs is the better world available if we, like these extraordinary musicians, agree to make it one.


Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other members of the Silk Road Ensemble visit Inner-City Arts in Los Angeles [video]

-- Mark Swed

Top Photo: Clockwise from left, Wu Man (pipa), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh) and Jonathan Gandelsman (violin). Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.