The Silk Road Ensemble is not one musical tradition, not one culture, but rather one single point where a multitude of cultures and musical heritages are united and combined. Seeking to link various musical traditions with newer musical disciplines and innovations, each foreign to the other, the result is a blend of distinct musical voices and cultures brought together under the guidance Yo-Yo Ma’s undeniable musicality and never-ending eclecticism.

Yo-Yo Ma © Michael O'Neill
Yo-Yo Ma
© Michael O'Neill

The ensemble unites musical virtuosi hailing from all corners of the earth, each as different as the other, such as Sandeep Das, one of the biggest names in contemporary Indian music, Kayhan Kalhor, world-renowned Iranian musician, and Shane Shanahan, percussionist who has performed alongside Philip Glass, Aretha Franklin, Deep Purple and even Jordi Savall. Those expecting the Yo-Yo Ma of Bach Suites fame were to be thoroughly disappointed this evening: Silk Road Ensemble certainly asks of its audience a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone, a curiosity to discover perhaps discover new instruments (such as the “sheng”, a Chinese hand-held mouth organ) but certainly a curiosity to discover unknown combinations and sounds. The opening work Ibn Arabi Postlude, composed by the ensemble’s very own clarinettist Kinan Azmeh, was a fantastic first step down the silk road (pun intended). The clarinet’s almost ethereal opening crept into life with a sombre and oriental melody, progressively joined by the other instruments.

It quickly became clear that Yo-Yo Ma was not the main attraction of the concert but merely another member of the ensemble, one of many voices contributing to the oriental melodies. Nonetheless, the unmistakable purity and timbre of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing made itself heard on several occasions, playing with a slow and heavy vibrato alongside the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument. The first work seamlessly led into the second, Night Thoughts for pipa (a Chinese plucked instrument), composed by Wu Man, the ensemble’s own pipa player. Performing alone, Wu Man’s technical ability was only matched by the beauty of her playing, with each note resonating throughout the hall, carefully plucked and warped by her vibrato. Before the audience was even able to think about applause, a conch (yes, a conch) was sounded by one of the percussion players, leading into Srishti, Sandeep Das’s percussion piece for Indian tabla, bongo, derbouka and traditional percussion. Worlds apart from the previous work, this was a full-throttle explosion of percussive virtuosity, speed, and almost tribal call and response. Though for the audience this was anything but a moment to sit back, for the performers it almost seemed humorous and relaxing as each smiled and jokingly looked at the other, passing to and fro increasingly complex rhythms with increasing speed.

David Bruce’s Cut The Rug was the first work not composed by one of the ensemble’s own members, but rather a commission by the Silk Road Project. Though all the works performed undoubtedly displayed the virtuosic and musical abilities of each and every member of the ensemble, it is clear that certain works were clearly better suited to the ensemble’s dynamic than others, namely the works composed by those within the ensemble. Undoubtedly a great and complex work, widely varied in mood and instrumentation (in particular a rather epic bagpipe solo by Cristina Pato in the middle of the work), the music nonetheless felt at odds with the ensemble’s various instruments, a feeling of being imposed rather than created. This was felt again during Vijay Iyer’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, another piece commissioned by the ensemble: more atonal and rhythmically modern in style than the previous works, Iyer’s work certainly stood out. It’s unsure whether these distinctions between the works are due to the fact that, because of the unique array of instruments, only those within the ensemble are able to capture a true synthesis.

Inspired by the Baku Ateshgah (Hindu “Fire Temple”), violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah truly captured the ensemble’s full potential and spirit. Himself a violinist in the ensemble, he explores the violin’s various tones and timbres alongside the Kamancheh, uniting two unique string instruments together. Almost Gregorian in its chordal progressions and its almost chant-like feel, the work evoked many beautiful images of distant lands and cultures.

A veritable explosive finale, Sapo Perapaskero’s Turceasca consisted of musical duels between the various instruments, such as the jazz double bass against the sheng and the clarinet against the gaita (bagpipes), before coming together for a final explosive run to the finish in an almost multi-cultural jig.

Silk Road Ensemble takes its audience down a very unique road, one which calls on those curious and adventurous enough to distance themselves from “the conventional”. Whilst the notion of musical “occidentalisation” may be brought into question by some, one cannot help but applaud the idea and astounding skill of this ensemble.

*****