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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Concert Review: A Globe Girdled in Silk

The Silk Road Project celebrates 15 years at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the Silk Road Project in concert. (l.-r. Sandeep Das, Yo-Yo Ma,  Johnny Gandelsman,
Mike Block. Center-foreground: Wu Tong.) Photo by Todd Rosenberg © 2012 The Silk Road Project.
The hallowed stage of Carnegie Hall resounded on Wednesday night with the bold sonic explorations of the Silk Road Project, founded and led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The group, a melting pot of musicians and musical styles from around the globe, marked 15 years of musical journeys with this program of six works, featuring three New York premieres. This was opening night of the Project's current North American tour.
Led (but not conducted) by Mr. Ma, the Silk Road Project players are virtuosos on their varied instruments, combining and recombining orchestrally in ways that are new to the ear but almost always inspired. A given work might feature Western string instruments combined with piano, marimba and gong. Then the sheng (Chinese mouth organ, here amplified with a pickup inside it) or Galician bagpipe (no amplification needed) might join the celebration, dancing with the Kamancheh (a Persian spike fiddle) and the complex percussion.

The concert opened with a celebratory Suite drawn from John Zorn's Book of Angels, an enormous compilation of 300 tunes that the composer and saxophonist wrote in just three months. Here, the busy, exultant rhythms and angular, intertwining melodic lines created a tribal firestorm, a raising of energy and good spirits with the invocation of the composer's Biblical inspiration. This was music with guts and energy, fiercely played.

The second piece was more relaxed and comtemplative. Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain by Angel Lam drew in the listener with plucked notes from the double bass interacting with the soothing sounds of the bamboo flute and the pipa played by Wu Man. With the addition of the sheng, the effect was seductive to the ear and hypnotic, creating the illusion of stillness even as the music moved forward.

Tabla virtuoso Sundeep Das took the mic next, to introduce Playlist for an Extreme Occasion by Vijay Iyer. This proved to be a thrilling, spicy concoction with Mr. Das' rolling, thunderous fingers leading the charge. Iyer's work shifted moods and gears through multiple movements, with the players feeding from each other creating a palpable sense of electricity and excitement in this normally staid venue.

The most exciting music making of the night was The Taranta Project a set of six Sicilian dances by composer Giovanni Sollima. Although built around similar forms, these dance movements constantly changed sound and feel, reflecting the cultural cross-roads of Sicily in their complexity and relentless rhythmic drive. Percussionist Shane Shanahan took the spotlight, switching between the cajón and his own body in a stunning solo that was a highlight of the work.

Moving from Sicily back to China, the ensemble next played The Prospect of Colored Desert by composer Jia Duqun. This was influenced by the ceremonial dances and mythology of Szechuan opera, inviting the listener to imagine a wildnerness encounter between an anonymous hero and a tiger. The results were moving, moody and atmospheric, with the bass sheng (played by Mr. Wu) dominating.

The concert ended with the four-part Cut the Rug by composer David Bruce. Inspired by Romany rhythms and the insanely violent Afghani equestrian sport of Buzkashi, this four-movement piece was like a symphony in its form. The spike fiddle and bagpipes played important roles in each movement, as it moved from raucous battles between mounted riders ("Drag the Goat")  to a slow central funeral procession ("Move the Earth") underpinned by Chinese gongs. The last movement ("Wake the Dead") ended in gleeful celebration with the players of the Silk Road Ensemble cutting joyfully into Mr. Bruce's celebratory dance rhythms.

But that was not the end. Two encores followed, a thrilling sheng vs. tabla duel between Mr. Das and Mr. Wu and a raucous whole-ensemble blast through "Miserlou," the old surf guitar favorite by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. It was a thrilling, kinetic end to this whirlwind journey around the globe.

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