The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma in San Francisco

Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma: Presented by San Francisco Performances, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 7.4.2011 (HS)

The Silk Road Project has blossomed into something much more than what cellist Yo-Yo Ma might have envisioned when he started it in 1998, a collection of musicians representing the cultures that interacted along the historical trade routes connecting China and the Mediterranean through Asia. The 14 musicians making up the ensemble that performed Thursday night at Davies Hall in San Francisco reflected a more general goal. As described in the program, it was “to maintain the integrity of art rooted in authentic traditions while nourishing global connections,” which helps explain the Celtic and Latin American music that sneaked into the mix.

That it worked seamlessly and joyously is no surprise. Nor was it surprising to find on the 2-hour 40-minute program pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Gabriela Lena Frank, two prominent composers who specialize in weaving together cultures that might seem antithetical until one actually hears the music that’s possible.

What made it work was the virtuosity and world view of the musicians involved. Joining string players (from the new-music ensemble Brooklyn Rider) and percussionists from the classical music world were a Chinese pipa player, a silky-smooth Iranian kamancheh soloist, an Egyptian oud specialist, a soulful Japanese shakuhachi musician and a manic Galician bagpiper from Spain. Individually and together, they created a unique sound and a remarkably integrated sense of rhythm and style that kept a capacity audience rapt.

As in a fine jazz concert, the individual performances, which often felt improvised even when they were not, had at least as much importance as the composed music. It’s hard to imagine how they might have been more varied. For delicacy, there was Wu Man’s “Night Thoughts,” an evocative expansion she wrote herself for pipa, of a fragment she discovered of an ancient musical scale inscribed on a Chinese cave wall. For quiet emotional depth, there was Kojiro Umezaki’s breathy solo on the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute, on Hong Kong-American composer Angel Lam’s “Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain,” played, with soft contributions from the string players and percussionists, in tribute to the people of Japan in the wake of the disaster there. Kayhan Malhor, whose work on Persian kamancheh, a distant relative of the violin played vertically like a Chinese erhu, has been heard with the Kronos Quartet, improvised a long solo that had moments of splendor.

At the opposite end of the emotional scale there was Cristina Pato, who charged into her gaita (Galician bagpipes) solos like a bull into a ring. Long green-tinged hair flying, eyes ablaze, she danced and wailed with wild power, all the while driving the music with rhythmic clarity and virtuosic articulation. She made her first appearance in her own arrangement of “Muiñeiras,” a traditional dance from Galicia, and brought the evening’s proceedings to a rousing climax in Golijov’s “Tancas Serradas a Muru,” with its irresistible rhythms that reflect an Arab influence on Spanish music.

Percussion, pipa, violin and cello each had their moments in a tightly structured suite by Gabriela Lena Frank, commissioned by the ensemble. “¡Chayraq!: Rough Guide to a Modern Tawantinsuyu,” a series of 12 short pieces based on field recordings of music that dates back to the Incan empire, started the second half of the concert with quiet exoticism.

But the piece de resistance, musically, was Golijov’s “Air to Air,” a Silk Road co-commission which recycles three pieces from the composer’s “Ayre” and one from music he wrote for Kronos’ CD Nuevo. Written for a similarly mixed ensemble and the soprano Dawn Upshaw, “Ayre” melds together Arab- and Hebrew-influenced Spanish music with modern percussion and an electronic hyper-accordion, which swoops dramatically through octave-wide glissandos. For these versions, Golijov gave the vocal lines to instruments such as the kamencheh on “Wah Habbibi” and shakuhachi on “Aiini Taqtiru,” with Pato’s bagpipes providing the swooping instead of the hyper-accordion on the hard-driving finale, “Tancas Serradas a Muru.”

Most affecting, however, might have been “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadalupe,” with its delicate interweaving of musical and nonmusical sounds (the latter coming from a computer-rendered recording that evoked the atmosphere in the Guadalupe town square). That piece, written for Kronos, is also one of the highlights of their CD.

For encores, the ensembles played a sinuous arrangement by violinist Colin Jacobsen of the lively Ethiopean tune “Musiqawi Silt,” and finished with a slam-bang mash-up of Irish and Spanish rhythms and modes, “Celtic Flamenco.” Cellist Mike Block and Pato, who arranged the piece, ended up almost nose-to-nose playing the refrain.

Through it all, Ma seemed content to be the benevolent leader, watching and listening as the music happened around him rather than taking the spotlight himself. He seemed as happy with what he was hearing as we were.

Harvey Steiman