Last year was the octocentenary of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, whose nondenominational messages of tolerance and spiritual love resonate among newly enlightened folk in the West. This year is the 10th anniversary of ever-curious cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, whose musical highway from China to the Mediterranean runs right through Persia (now Iran).
So it was not such a stretch to unite the legacy of Rumi and the adventures of Yo-Yo at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night as part of a 3 1/2 -hour marathon of Persian music and verse. What was a surprise was that the concert wasn't linked to the simultaneous World Festival of Sacred Music, which ended Sunday and was dealing in exactly this sort of thing. Not that it needed any help, for the Bowl looked full (official attendance: 15,644), just as it was when the Silk Road Ensemble last appeared there in 2005.
This time, though, Ma and his friends didn't perform until 10:35 p.m. -- half an hour behind schedule -- in a pop-like position as the headlining closer. And the Silk Road Ensemble was limited to a single East-West-fusion composition by longtime member Kayhan Kalhor, "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur," that it had performed at Royce Hall in 2002 and at the Bowl in 2005. No new roads there.
In any case, those who came primarily for Ma were given an exhaustive crash course in Persian culture, as curated by Kalhor. The Bowl's outer rim was illuminated with Persian designs, and the calligrapher Ostad Yadollah Kaboli could be seen onstage creating his intricate patterns, projected on the video screens, in real time.
Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo and journalist Iraj Gorgin recited Rumi verse (she in English, he in Persian), including the universal manifesto "La Makan" ("I am neither a Christian, nor Jew, nor Zoroastrian, nor a Muslim").
The white-turbaned Nour-Mohammad Dorpour appeared solo in what was billed as his first performance outside Iran, strumming jangling rhythms on a dotar (lute) and reciting Rumi poetry in a voice that outdoors seemed to echo through the ages. The Qaderi Dervishes of Kurdistan, in their first U.S. performance, sang in syncopated, ever-changing rhythms to the rolling beat of a daf (frame drum) and eventually went into fits of ecstasy shaking their long black hair.
As the Bowl became even more wildly illuminated, the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus revolved slowly to the modal, drone-based accompaniment of Sheik Hamza Chakour and Ensemble Al-Kindi, then spun around faster and faster, their white garments spreading like umbrellas. Kalhor, a virtuoso of the kamancheh (a small spiked fiddle held like a cello), and his marvelously precise classical Persian ensemble performed a lengthy, carefully structured piece that ran overtime entering a majestic tread.
Of Kalhor's several pieces for the Silk Road Ensemble, "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur" seems to be the most popular, with its meditative opening and chugging rhythm that almost resembles a tango. Ma's identification with the idiom is now such that his tone quality and inflections at times were indistinguishable from those of Kalhor.
The piece's musical signposts were attacked with gusto by the Western string players and members of Kalhor's group. There were also breaks for improvisation -- and the musicians' energy was infectious enough to lift a tiring audience into whooping ecstasy.