Chamber Music No.5

Chinese Traditional
Brilliant Lanterns Under the Moon
Jia Daqun
The Prospect of Colored Desert
Cello Sonata in D minor
Krgyz Traditional
Excerpt from The Manas; Jew’s harp duet – White Neck and Blue Neck & Spoilt Girl duet
Kayhan Kalhor
Gallop of a Thousand Horses

Silk Road Ensemble:

Siamak Aghaei (santur)
Nicholas Cords (viola)
Sandeep Das (tabla)
Joel Fan (piano)
Jonathan Gandelsman (violin)
Joseph Gramley (percussion)
Colin Jacobsen (violin)
Rysbek Jumabaev (narrator)
Kayhan Kalhor (kemancheh)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Asylbek Nasirdinov (komuz & Jew’s harp)
Nurianbek Nyshanov (choor, chopa-choor, Jew’s harp, komuz & sybzgy)
Wu Man (pipa)
Wu Tong (sheng)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 August, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

By far the most interesting of the three Silk Road Project concerts, this intimate Chamber Music Prom was introduced in her usually infectious vein by Stephanie Hughes with the added bonus of comments by four of the musicians (Yo-Yo Ma, Wu Man, Jonathan Gandelsman, and Sandeep Das) giving further explanations of the various instruments and works.

Once again, the trajectory of the concert went from East to West, starting with a traditional Chinese melody for Wu Man on the pipa, a Chinese lute. Whether Brilliant Lanterns Under the Moon actually reminded this listener of such evocative images, the piece was distinctive, with its percussive touches (Wu Man admitting that she wanted to be a percussionist before parental pressure kept her on the pipa). Jia Daqun’s The Prospect of Colored Desert that followed was larger in every respect. Turning to composition when his failing eyesight curtailed his career as a painter, this 50-year-old is still inspired by visual impetus – here some calligraphy. But, as violinist Colin Jacobsen explained, the players (including Yo-Yo Ma, percussionist Joseph Gramley, Wu Man and sheng-player Wu Tong) were more immediately affected by Wu Tong’s likening of the music to Szechwan Opera (even more vivid than Peking Opera), hearing a tale between the violinist hero against a tiger, signified by the percussion – Gramley’s pawing at the bass drum being particularly effective.

The one geographical out-of-kilter placing in the programme was Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, with pianist Joel Fan. With the stage so crowded Ma and Fan sat at right angles with their chairs nearly touching, the piano shifted stage-right almost to the wall of the Lecture Theatre, but this only enhanced the intimacy, with Debussy’s eastern-influenced music fitting nicely into the programme.

Then back to the east, to Kyrgyzstan, for a medley of pieces by a trio in national costume: embroidered trousers, simple shirts and – for the players – high white hats. First we had an excerpt from the Kyrgy national epic, the Manas, recited with arch expressionism by Rysbek Jumabaev, a cross between Laurence Olivier and Fu Man Chu. Look no further to find out where Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson learnt their all-too-prevalent gestures, they’ve obviously sat at the knees of Jumabaev. How it quite translated into the story of the great march on China and the taking of Beijing I’m not sure.

More engrossing was the duet for Jew’s harp, with the youngest player Asylbek Nasirdinov taking the lower part (the instrument being about 2 inches long) while Nurianbek Nyshanov took the higher part (an instrument so small you couldn’t see it behind the finger at his mouth). Nasirdinov then played a solo on his trademark komuz (a very thin bridged lute), based on a folk song about two birds – White Neck and Blue Neck arguing about whether they should migrate. I wondered if he knew the film “Deliverance” and its duelling banjo scene; certainly there were similarities as the birds squabbled and not just in mood – some of it sounded incredibly (and obviously completely coincidentally) similar. Finally Nyshanov and Nasirdinov teamed up for the former’s arrangement of a song about a spoilt girl, with the arranger displaying his prowess not only on the komuz but also various flutes and ocarina.

The move to Iran introduced us to composer and spiked-fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor (Ma believes the kemancheh is the great grandfather of the cello) for his Gallop of a Thousand Horses scored for western string quartet, the kemancheh, Siamak Aghaei on the santur (a hammered dulcimer) and tabla-player Sandeep Das. Reflecting Kalhor’s love of horses that might have seen him become a polo player, it was full of galloping motifs, suggesting that music is imitative of sounds we all recognise.

So to the encores. Nyshanov had written a trio for Yu Man and two komuzes, with the composer cheekily stealing the limelight by his artful bridgework, while the final excerpt (overrunning the set 60-minute timeslot and joyfully flouted by Radio 3), called Mido Mountain, brought back the western quartet, with the Chinese players and both Joseph Gramley and Joel Fan (none too steady on the wood block) on percussion. Sheng-player Wu Tong’s arrangement had rocking (no other word for it) outer sections, with his more compact sheng squeeze-boxing away. In the slower central section he swapped to the subtle flute-like bawu, and when the final swinging section returned, it reinforced the fact that music is little different across the world – with its distinctive (to western ears, at any rate) Celtic timbres.

What was good about this particular programme was it presented new works, not just a re-run of the CD (as the main Royal Albert Hall concert had turned out to be). With such persuasive and pleasant performers, I can only hope that the Silk Road Project will make tracks to Kensington again.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 21 August at midday
  • BBC Proms 2004

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