A mysterious clarinet reveals low, long tones. Changing light effects create mood lighting. It sounds and feels mysterious, almost as from another world. The Silk Road Ensemble, together with Yo-Yo Ma, starts off slowly in the introduction of Kinan Azmeh’s Ibn Arabi Postlude. But then the clarinet starts to play faster and more virtuosic, and the music, slowly but steadily, gets more buzzing, more exciting, dragging the audience along up until the climactic finale.

The Silk Road Ensemble © Max Whittaker
The Silk Road Ensemble
© Max Whittaker

The Silk Road Ensemble was formed in 2000 with the goal of bringing together performers and composers representing world-wide traditions. As one of the musicians told the audience in The Royal Concertgebouw, the ensemble unites people who might otherwise never have performed together. Their different nationalities were represented in their looks: the musicians wore bright colours, exotic blouses and even a kaftan, to which the Western variant – a neat but  ordinary suit – rather faded. They played instruments one may have never seen, such as the Chinese sheng or the Spanish gaita. And the music they performed was just as exciting as their instruments: vibrant and full of folk elements.

It is the kind of music that brings a smile to your face. The climactic work on the programme, Cut the Rug by David Bruce, was some of the happiest music that there is and no doubt warmed the hearts of the audience. Bruce's work in four parts demonstrated flamenco influences and elements of klezmer that easily succeeded in dragging the audience along with the music. With attention for extraordinary instruments such as the gaita and the Chinese pipa, the composition with its different styles presented an immensely rich palette of warm colours. Bruce’s music was like taking in a dose of happiness, making one feel like it is Christmas already.

The other compositions on the programme, works by the likes of Sandeep Das, Vijay Iyer and Colin Jacobsen, also took the audience on a journey with the music, recalling scenes from misty China to the Irish hills. Especially interesting was hearing how different an instrument can sound from one piece to another; Kinan Azmeh’s clarinet first sounded classical, like in a Romantic composition, then low, almost like a horn. Azmeh and his colleagues visibly enjoyed making music. A dancing cellist, swinging violinists and a relishing percussionist: seeing this lot was half the fun.

The Silk Road Ensemble did what it promised: it brought different musical traditions to the audience and took them to places they had never been before. The Silk Road Ensemble, the sheng, the gaita, and the pipa met an audience that will not forget them.