Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road serve up a bracing and colorful evening

March 5, 2015 at 1:05 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble performed Wednesday night at Symphony Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

In 1998, cellist Yo-Yo Ma embarked on an ambitious project to promote multicultural exchange between musicians from around the globe. The result of that endeavor, the Silk Road Ensemble, has been presenting works for the past fifteen years that blend national and ethnic musical styles with those of the Western classical tradition.

Wednesday night at Symphony Hall, the celebrated band, in a concert sponsored by the Celebrity Series, performed a rich and varied program of mostly new music that touched on Middle Eastern, Asian, Spanish, and Latin-American musical genres.

Listening to the Silk Road Ensemble is to experience a colorful palette of shimmering instrumental effects. Silvery strands of orchestral strings complement the sounds of wind instruments like the pipa and gaita, with pulsing percussion tossed in for a spicy rhythmic mix. The musicians played with vitality and a fiery display of virtuosity to bring out the inherent excitement of each piece heard Wednesday night.

The most substantive of those heard, Zhao Lin’s Paramita, is an arrangement of a double concerto for cello and sheng (a Chinese reed instrument) that was performed by Ma and Wu Tong with the New York Philharmonic just last month. The piece is a musical depiction of the life and journeys of Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who ventured from China to India and back again.

The tuneful score has the emotional immediacy of film music, with big, episodic themes flowing one after another. Wednesday’s performance featured the full powers of the Silk Road Ensemble, who handled the music’s sing-song lines with delicacy. Ma was featured prominently, lofting several solos that glowed with heartwarming tone and intensity.

The other new work heard was Edward Perez’s Latina 6/8 Suite. This fun, evocative piece explores the various permutations of compound rhythms in several Spanish and Latin-American musical styles, such as the Venezuelan joropo, Peruvian festejo, and the Galician muiñeira. Christina Pato’s splendid performance on the gaita, the Galician bagpipes, brought energy and enthusiasm to the performance. Her technique on the instrument is dazzling, and her serpentine melodic line floated gracefully over the punchy rhythms supplied by the Silk Road bass and percussion. Pato was equally adept at the piano, her jazzy melodies sounding svelte over the glassy string and wind harmonies.

Giovanni Sollima’s Taranta Project is equally barnstorming in its propulsive rhythms and stirring energy. Scored for string quartet and percussion, the work explodes in a series of gnarly riffs. Ma’s cello was the central feature in the second movement, where his display of driving rhythm took him all over the instrument. The percussion part, featuring the stomping of feet and the slapping of thighs and chest, brought a level of humor. Throughout, the musicians played with aplomb.

The opener, Kojiro Umezaki’s Side In Side Out, is a spirited work that unfolds in an energetic, side-winding groove. Its melodies, flavored with tasty modal inflections, wind their way over infectious rhythms in the percussion. The highlight of the work, though, is the haunting central section, which featured the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute, and the lute-like pipa in a glistening duet over free-moving rhythms punctuated by the tabla. The Silk Road musicians played all with a keen sense of the work’s improvisatory nature.

Also improvisatory in style was Jugalbandi, a piece composed by Sandeep Das and Kayhan Kalhor.  Scored for cello, violin, kamancheh, and tabla, the piece appears simple on the surface. Melodic patterns that span little more than octave hover like clouds over drones supplied by cello and violin. Yet as the piece progresses it grows in melodic complexity, propelling forward through darting runs and fluttering percussion effects. Most impressive were the duets between Kalhor (kamancheh) and Das (tabla), who performed with abandon.

Kinan Azmeh’s Wedding was equally stirring. At once silky and raucous, this piece, a depiction of a Syrian wedding dance, involves a series of glacial phrases that unfold in a long crescendo, picking up rhythm along the way. The work eventually erupts in a frenzy of wild strains, with the composer himself performing a full, red-blooded solo on the clarinet.

Two foot-stomping encores, an Irish march and the old American tune “Little Birdie,” sent the audience whistling into the night.

The next Celebrity Series concert will feature organist Cameron Carpenter in selections from “If You Could Read My Mind” and new works 8 p.m. Thursday at Sanders Theatre. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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