Silk Road Ensemble & Yo-Yo Ma

Silk Road Suite [various composers]

Giovanni Sollima
The Taranta Project
Angel Lam
Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain

Ambush from Ten Sides [Trad., arr. Li Cang Sang & Wu Tong]

Silk Road Ensemble & Yo-Yo Ma (cello)


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Yo-Yo MaSilk Road Ensemble’s second visit to the Proms with musical director Yo-Yo Ma marked its tenth anniversary, a decade that has seen the Ensemble grow in musical stature, with core values of musical and cultural exploration as a community fully intact. Yo-Yo Ma may be an international soloist, but he retains a touching sense of humility when performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, and this, coupled to an almost boundless sense of discovery, is an invigorating mix.

The group began with a five-part collaborative work, exploring styles of both East and West, with each movement of the Silk Road Suite attributed to a different composer. The first, ‘Wandering Winds’, was a striking visual and aural improvisation, flautists Wu Tong, playing a Chinese bawu, and Kojiro Umezaki on a shackuhachi, descending the steps at each side of the stage. As the suite unfolded, the match of classical parameters with unfamiliar textures and melodies was enchanting, and Kayhan Kalhor’s ‘Mountains are far away’ gave a rich baritone melody to Ma’s expressive cello, the melodic inflections judged to perfection and bringing in a persuasive, swaying rhythm.

That the twelve-member Ensemble held the attention so vividly for the half-hour duration of the Suite says much for the melodic interest of each movement, which included the traditional piece ‘Phoenix Rising’, in which Wu Tong moved to the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), and then came the Arabic rhythms of ‘Saidi Swing’, an authentic piece based on Arabic rhythms. The energetic ‘Arabian Waltz’ provided a suitably upbeat, raucous finish, the Ensemble thoroughly enjoying its colours and cross-rhythms.

Music by Giovanni Sollima (born 1962) followed, the composer skilfully combining the musical languages of several countries while highlighting his Sicilian roots. To achieve this, Sollima, also a cellist, writes for string quartet and percussion initially using a style heavily influenced by Baroque forms and practices, manifested in the performance by a complete lack of vibrato. The Taranta Project is a suite of dances, some written in skilful pastiche in a manner possibly influenced by Respighi, while others make explicit use of percussion including Shane Shanahan using his own body as an instrument, slapping his ribcage and jaw to draw audible gasps of astonishment from the audience.

There was a feel-good atmosphere throughout the concert, with each item introduced by a member of the ensemble. The story behind Angel Lam’s Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain put its instrumentation and musical language into context, the shackuhachi the focal point of much of the music in an energetic performance by Kojiro Umezaki, the composer painting a vision of sunshine and rain together, in memory of his grandmother.

Finally there was Ambush from Ten Sides, played out visually with the pipa of Wu Man, and sweeping along in a cumulative burst of energy. Percussionists Joseph Gramley and Oliver Lowe came into their own, their propulsive beats carrying the music on a wave, the music vividly descriptive, telling the story of a battle between ancient dynasties, culminating in a furious finale.

It would be easy to underestimate the sheer virtuosity brought to this music by Silk Road Ensemble, its members playing with total commitment, energy and, above all, a sense of fun. By introducing largely classical audiences to music outside of Western confines, these musicians are providing something invaluable and with a complete lack of pretence – and on this evidence, few people leave Silk Road’s concerts without a smile on their faces.



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