Formed under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of distinguished performers and composers from more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas, took to the stage at Carnegie Hall Wednesday evening. Looking up at Perelman stage, you'd never guess the group was no more than a small ensemble. There were seats for several string players, a grand piano and a full percussion set, including Indian tabla, a gong and marimba; then, when the ensemble took to the stage, Gaita (Galician bagpipes originating from northwest Spain), clarinet, pipa and most interesting, a Chinese sheng.

Part of the Silk Road Ensemble
Part of the Silk Road Ensemble

In the opening piece, Book of Angels, the second in a series of collections that form John Zorn's Masada project, an experiment in Jewish musical styles, each musician took turns highlighting his or her instrument. The first few lines were light and upbeat; it was easy to hear the melody passed between various instruments, moving from the pipa to the contrabass and eventually to all the strings, when the melody transformed into a slow, waltz-like movement. But just as quickly as the tune settled into its subtle dance, it took another turn: the percussion rattled underneath, with the tabla in the forefront, and oddly enough, the inclusion of Gaita and strings, lent the theme a seductive quality, as if a temptress were now dancing for our favor in a dark, smoky lounge, dimly lit by lanterns and the glow of burning embers of hookah pipes.

All of the flawless, and convincing, transitions across a variety of musical styles – in just one song! – is testament to the talent and skill of the Silk Road Ensemble. Quoted in the Playbill, Yo-Yo Ma states, “the Silk Road Ensemble is a musical model that requires curiosity, collaboration and wholehearted enthusiasm. The music we play does not belong to just one culture or solely to the Silk Road region.” It is clear that the ensemble takes their artistic mission to heart – and it was easy to hear a variety of cultural influences throughout the evening’s performance.

There were also countless surprises on the musical agenda. In Giovanna Sollima's The Taranta Project, the Sicilian cellist and composer explored not only his Italian roots, but also classical, rock, jazz and ethnic musical traditions from other Mediterranean lands, such as North Africa, Israel, Turkey and Andalusia. What started as a dream-like tapestry of rich, tonal harmonies became an innovative duet between the cellist and percussion. Doing more than keep time on a few drums, the percussionist stood up for his solo and added vocal and body rhythms to the instrumentation as well. There were no limits in this piece: the percussionist used every part of his body as a drum, from his thighs to chest, mouth and forehead!

Another great visual occurred in Jia Daqun’s The Prospect of Colored Desert. Composed with a painterly aesthetic, Daqun drew inspiration from Chinese calligraphy to create his image of a desert. Also influenced by Chinese opera, each instrument evoked a specific assignment or role. At one point, the timpanist was half sprawled on top of the drum, hitting the drum with both hands in a slow, dragging motion, thus bringing to life an image of a tiger crawling through deep sand dunes and then pouncing on its prey.

My personal favorite was Wu Tong’s encore performance on the sheng, a Chinese reed instrument made of metal, wood or a gourd with at least 17 bamboo or metal pipes, producing an incredible, tinny sound as the musician both inhales and exhales.

It was obvious I was not alone in my enthusiasm for this ancient instrument, because the moment Tong re-appeared on stage, he was overwhelmed with applause. And immediately, he dove into a solo sheng piece, which then became a mini jam session with Sandeep Das, who played the tabla through the program but favored a speaker-like drum in the encore. Together, the two musicians engaged in a musical battle, both exploring sounds and testing ideas live, in that moment.

The last piece on the program, David Bruce’s Cut the Rug was a real celebration of ‘musics being part of one large family’ but also of the Silk Road Ensemble itself. Written in four movements, the whole piece felt – and sounded – like one big party. Beginning and ending with a light-hearted, gypsy theme, Cut the Rug was tied together by its klezmer and jazz roots, with fleeting moments of flamenco and dramatic, Gaita solos by the fierce Cristina Pato (who also tickled the ivories in Vijay Iver’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion).

It is impossible to talk about all of the incredible nuances and nods to various cultures the Silk Road Ensemble so carefully, yet enthusiastically, performed at Carnegie Hall. Just know that if you haven’t seen this group perform live yet, you are seriously missing out.

There is a huge debate in musical circles about the role of genre and what exactly it means to define a piece of music as Classical, Western, or Eastern. But sitting in Carnegie Hall, listening to the Silk Road Ensemble, all of those limiting definitions melted away. Historically, the Silk Road served as a physical cross-roads for various travelers and cultures; and today the Silk Road Ensemble takes inspiration from this ancient trade network as a model for constant exchange, collaboration and celebration of our global community.