Ma proves that music speaks to all nations

Review: Silk Road Project succeeds at bringing the various sounds of one corner of the world to Western ears.

October 22, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project in 1998, he could not have anticipated Sept. 11, or the way that recent events have made his venture more meaningful, perhaps even necessary.

What the famed cellist started out to do was explore the musical cultures of the ancient lands that bridged Europe and Asia - the countries along the so-called Silk Road that led to the exchange of goods and the cross-pollination of ideas, including musical ones. Today, virtually all of these countries are being affected, in one way or another, by the war on terrorism.

The need for Westerners to understand something about the diverse populations in that region could hardly be greater. In essence, Ma is re-creating, or re-instigating, the kind of multi-cultural fusion that occurred centuries ago as traders and adventurers traveled caravan routes between the Middle East and China.

Instead of merely focusing on indigenous folk music (now more often termed "world music"), Ma wanted to mix Western classical idioms and instruments with those found along the Silk Road. The project has commissioned works by composers from Mongolia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and other countries; the Silk Road Ensemble, with top-notch regular and pick-up performers, tours far and wide with the results.

That tour brought Ma and the group to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday afternoon, one of several Silk Road events being presented throughout this season by the Washington Performing Arts Society, in collaboration with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and others.

It may be a cliche to call music the universal language, but that was the overriding message of this concert, from the fascinating sounds of a Mongolian "long song" singer to the tangy zither-like Persian santour.

Kayhan Kalhor's Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur, with its firm rhythmic pulses and limited harmonic motion, has the hypnotic power of minimalism. The Iranian composer's sure blend of folk and Western instruments and sense of expressive timing generated an arresting performance.

Legend of Herlen, by Mongolia's B. Sharav, successfully brought together piano, trombones, percussion, the "horse-head fiddle" (played by Ma) and the haunting vocalism of Khongorzul Ganbaatar, a specialist in the technique of "long song," with its elaborate twists and vivid emphasis.

Chen Yi's Ning, a lament for Chinese suffering at the hands of Japan's army in World War II, gets a wide range of color from violin, cello and pipa (the Chinese lute). The closing moments, with the instruments reaching the highest edge of audibility, proved particularly affecting.

There were interesting moments, too, in Habil-Sayagy by Azerbaijan's Franghiz Ali-Zadeh for cello and piano (prepared, a la John Cage, by adding things to the inside). And, as is the custom at these concerts, a major work of Western music was included - Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 (its compelling references to Jewish folk music neatly fits the Silk Road concept). Ma's playing had tremendous communicative power here; he was solidly matched by violinist Colin Jacobsen and pianist Joel Fan.

A country conspicuously absent from the Silk Road Project so far is Afghanistan, where the Taliban have banished music, except for approved religious chants, and have publicly burned confiscated instruments. Perhaps a day will come when music will be made freely there again and when the country's silenced composers and performers will be able to add their voices to Yo-Yo Ma's earnest song of multi-culturalism.

The cocktail hour

Music organizations everywhere are striving to get younger folks into concert halls; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new "Symphony with a Twist" series is trying martinis as bait. A good-sized crowd turned out for the opening of the series Saturday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Folks imbibed assorted cocktails in the decorated lobby, then munched on greatest hits from opera and Jay Leno-style one-liners from host and Sun columnist Dan Rodricks.

Yakov Kreizberg, conducting from memory, had the potpourri well under control and drew out some admirably tight, expressive playing. Highlights included overtures to Rossini's William Tell (Chang Woo Lee's opening cello solo was radiant) and Strauss' Die Fledermaus (energized by Kreizberg's rhythmic playfulness).

Soprano Jessica Jones started tentatively with Dove sono from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, but soon had her silvery tone cooperating. She delivered an aria from Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame with particular sensitivity and dramatic fire; her encore, Lehar's Minnen Lippen, sie kussen so heiss, was deliciously phrased.

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