News Article

Times of Oman

BY DR. PATRICIA GROVES    |    JANUARY 31, 2014 , 2 : 12 PM GST    

World famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble treated music enthusiasts in Muscat to a cultural voyage across the historic trading route at the Royal Opera House Muscat last week.

When we walked across the shining marble of the maidan through the arches of the Royal Opera House into the humming chatter of a crowd that was more numerous and excited than usual, we knew it would be an exceptional evening.

The darkened stage was set for sixteen musicians against a backdrop of enormous Oriental gongs waiting to be struck. As the Silk Road musicians streamed on stage and took their seats, I noted three cellists, but it took me a while to recognise among them Yo-yo Ma, who had not set himself apart. This world-famous cellist was just part of the ensemble.

From Opposite Ends of the Earth
A tall Spanish lady with her hair pulled back in a gesture of command stood up, her voluminous mustard-gold skirt governing the floor as she strode out toward the edge of the stage. Her shoulders and torso were draped with the tasselled hangings of the proud Galician gaita or bagpipe that she carried like the limbs of the goat from which it was made. The lady was none other than Cristina Pato, a famous gaita virtuoso, composer and pianist who holds a doctorate from Rutgers in Musical Arts & Collaborative Piano.

Across the proscenium, Cristina Pato faced Wu Tong, a Chinese musician of equal calibre with a small horn-like folk instrument, the suona, dating from the third to fifth centuries in Northern China where it was used on festive and military occasions as well as in requiems. High-pitched with piercing clarity and brightness, Wu Tong's suona proved to be a match for the resounding drone and domineering chromatic brilliance of the gaita.

The two musicians from opposite ends of the earth shattered the cool silence of the great concert hall with high, clear notes, unearthly in sound, and such as few in the audience would have heard before. In time, their haunting calls were answered by an equally evocative refrain from the ensemble with melodic song woven wordlessly into the rhythms of the repartee between the gaita and the suona.

Titled simply, Fanfare for Gaita and Suona, the composition was enacted as if East and West in the distant dominions of Asia and the far reaches of Europe were declaring from the mountain tops an emphatic 'Joy to the World'.

Voice of ancient Japan; The Blue of Persian Turquoise
On the heels of the opening triumph came Side Inside Out, an original composition by Japanese-Danish musician, Kojiro Umezaki, virtuosic master of the shakuhachi, an eighth-century bamboo flute with remarkable tonal colour that once was used in Zen Buddhist blowing meditation.

Charmingly described as analogous to a recipe with musical spices from the Orient - a dash of Mahler's Symphony No 5 and other European orchestral works mixed with dance rhythms and vibrations from electronic music - this complex concoction emerged as a harmonious creation redolent of the many music cultures that inspired it.

The usual canons of beauty were exploded by a fresh interpretation of classic Persian music by acclaimed kamancheh artist, Kayhan Kalhor. Ancestor of the violin, the kamancheh has a long neck rising from a bowl-shaped sound chamber made of a gourd wrapped in the skin of a lamb. As a bow is drawn across three silk strings, notes of haunting beauty are heard to resonate before taking flight. With origins in the land of the legendary poet, Omar Khayyam, the composition bears the atmospheric title, Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur, in reference to a city along the original Silk Road renowned for high-quality turquoise with a striking blue sheen. The score is 'a letter to the world written in music', set in the mystical time between the depths of the night and the radiant emergence of dawn. In a tribute to the music he played, Kayhan Kalhor wore a tunic the jewelled colour of Neyshabur's turquoise.

Yo-Yo Ma & the Song of a Swallow
After the intermission, the stage was set with a solitary chair. The expectation that Yo-Yo Ma might play apart from the ensemble went rippling through the audience. Sure enough, Yo-Yo Ma walked on stage with his priceless mahogany-orange cello gleaming under lights.

The great cellist was not entirely alone. He was accompanied by the suona player, Wu Tong, whose hands were strangely empty. Wu Tong would sing the song of Zanzi, a girl with streaming hair and a slender neck, who soars like a swallow. Wu Tong sang this well-loved Chinese folk song in soul-shattering high notes that seemed to sail through skies of blue with infinite grace, while the cello gave wings the swallows of the world.

The Great Cultural Confluence
Another star of the ensemble was the Chinese flute (pipa) virtuoso and composer, Wu Man. This diminutive young woman is quite simply the world's premier pipa musician, drawing innovatively on traditions more than two thousand years old. The complex delicacy of her music has a power as great as that of the more dramatic instruments in the ensemble, such as the gaita and suona, or the shakuhachi and the kamanchen.
Representing the fine rhythmic traditions of India, top-flight tabla player and composer, Sandeep Das led the ensemble in Tarang, a piece he created 'to bring common elements of rhythm from the Silk Road countries together' in ways he imagined merchants and travellers interacted in days of old.

At the end of the concert, Maestro Yo-Yo Ma spoke for the first time, saying that he had "a little surprise" – some members of the Royal Symphony Orchestra of Oman would join the ensemble for the encore. The world's most famous cellist graciously acknowledged His Majesty's vision and thanked him for the joy of playing with ROSO and the honour of being invited to Oman's magnificent Royal Opera House. Then, the richly expanded ensemble played a piece freshly composed for the occasion by Wu Man.

There could not have been a more perfect way to end the evening than with an Omani element in the great cultural confluence of the Silk Road.