Disparate Cultures Share Mesmerizing Virtuosity

United StatesUnited States Silk Road Ensemble: Jeffrey Beecher (bass), Mike Block (cello), Nicholas Cords (viola), Sandeep Das (tablas), Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Joseph Gramley (percussion), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Cristina Pato (gaita), Shane Shanahan (percussion), Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi), Weill Hall, Rohnert Park, California. 29.10.2013 (HS)


Silk Road Suite:
Cristina Pato: Caronte
Shane Shanahan: Saidi Swing
Rabih Abou-Khalil: Arabian Waltz
Colin Jacobsen: Atashgah
Mike Block and Cristina Pato: Celtibera
Angel Lam: Empty Mountain/Spirit Rain
John Zorn: Suite from “Book of Angels”

This was the first time I’ve experienced this ensemble without its founder, Yo-Yo Ma, on stage with them. In previous performances Ma’s contribution was as an integral member who helped create a grounded presence for a highly disparate musical group, seldom as a star. But that’s the point. The results have always been thrilling because of the virtuosity of all of the musicians, regardless of their cultures.

The Silk Road Project brings together music and musicians from the countries and cultures that lie along the trade route linking Asia to Europe in times past. It’s a wild mix of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, central Asian, Moorish and southern European music juxtaposed against violins, violas, cellos and a bass. The musicians’ ability to create a startling synthesis of cultures without losing their own character and personalities was on display Tuesday night at Weill Hall, the beautiful new concert venue at SonomaStateUniversity in Rohnert Park, an hour north of San Francisco

At any given time, the forces onstage draw from a roster of nearly four dozen musicians. For this, the ensemble’s 15th anniversary tour, the 11-member band augmented a string quartet with bass, percussion (both western and eastern, including Indian tablas), kamancheh (a vertically played fiddle used in Islamic music), shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) and gaita (a Galician bagpipe). This is a less exotic mix than usual, believe it or not.

The full ensemble in propulsive charge was something to behold, what with exotic rhythms and crisply articulated time signatures, flamboyant tonal colors and dramatic crescendos and accelerandos. Every contributing culture has a slightly different approach to rhythm, but over the years this group has found a way to make it fit together consistently. The driving finish to Arabian Waltz, by the Lebanese-born composer Rabih Abou-Khalil, was nothing short of thrilling.

Anytime Cristina Pato stepped forward with her elaborately decorated bagpipe (the gaita), both natives of Galicia in northwest Spain, the power of the ensemble sound climbed to its most intense. It’s not just the loudness but the soulfulness of her playing, bending notes and creating nuances totally unexpected on a bagpipe.
Not all of the program was at this high level. One that missed was Celtibera, written by Pato and performed by her and cellist Mike Block (who played standing up, his instrument suspended from a sling around his neck and body). It found little connection between her Celtic-influenced Spanish music (the Celts occupied northwest Spain and influenced its culture) and Block’s Scottish melodic line, and came off as perfunctory. A string of arrangements (by members of the ensemble) of music from John Zorn’s Book of Angels never took off, either.

The high points, however, came in more intimate moments. Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who grew up in Tokyo with Japanese and Danish parents, evoked the scents and fleeting emotions of a child caught in the rain in Empty Mountain/Spirit Rain, a tone poem for his instrument, strings and delicate glances of percussion, by the Chinese-American composer Angel Lam. Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor drew sighs and long melodic arcs from his kamancheh in violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah, a peaceful contemplation of a Zoroaster temple they visited in Iran. Beneath the placid surface emotions rumbled disquietingly.

But the most arresting music came with Kalhor and tablas player Sandeep Das in a mutual improvisation titled Jugalbandi, Sanskrit for a duet in which neither partner dominates. As in most improvisations, there was an element of “anything you can play, I can play with more complexity and flair.” But with Kalhor drawing both languidly sweet and spikily percussive sounds from his fiddle, and Das emphasizing the melodic possibilities in his delicately tuned drums, the results were mesmerizing—the level of virtuosity off the charts.

Harvey Steiman


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