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.
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.