Press Article

By: John von Rhein

August 22, 2010

Chicago Tribune

The Silk Road Project began a dozen years ago as a way to study the global circulation of indigenous musical impulses and traditions. Over time it evolved into an enormously popular caravan of cross-cultural performance and education, an extended celebration of transnational voices belonging to one world.

Chicago, which has a history of grand visionary projects, was a natural pit stop for the Silk Road Ensemble, which is why the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the group's artistic director, chose our town as the first city in the world to host and collaborate with his band for an entire season, 2006-07.

On Friday Ma took his band of fellow musical Marco Polos to Ravinia for the first time, where they shared a largely new program of their unique creative cross-cultural musical connections. The crowd that packed the pavilion and sodden lawn (where a giant video screen had been installed for the occasion) was as diverse as the repertory.

As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's creative consultant, a position he assumed in January at Riccardo Muti's behest, Ma is busy exploring new ways to reach out to local at-risk and incarcerated youth through music. But Friday's concert, part of what was billed as the ensemble's 10th anniversary tour, was not so much about missionary work as preaching to the already-converted. It did so in exhilarating fashion, with a thundershower adding its rumbling vibe to the musical mix.

In recent years the Silk Road Ensemble has been drawing ever more on works by its resident performers and composers; more than half of the pieces heard on Friday were of such nature. At times I would have liked to hear something a bit more modernist-edgy to offset the prevailing slickness, but the amplified energy level was so high, the verbal play-by-play by Ma and colleagues so apt and the ensemble playing so amazingly tight as to silence any grumbles.

Cristina Pato's "Caronte" and Colin Jacobsen's arrangement of "Ascending Bird," works derived from ancient Greek and Persian myths, respectively, morphed into one terrific opening number. The haunting wail of Pato's gaita (Persian bagpipe) and the piercing cries of Kojiro Umezaki's shakuhachi (Japanese flute) joined in a kind of duel before the final pages, a wonderfully scratchy, Near Eastern-style hoedown.

"Wine Madness," an arrangement by Wu Tong and Liu Lin of a 3rd century Chinese folk song, opened with lovely modal sighs and shimmers from an 11-string guitar, violin, cello, tabla (Indian drum) and sheng (Chinese mouth organ, played with virtuosic abandon by Wu) before it, too, switched gears, ending in a fast, jazzy final section punctuated by Sandeep Das' awesome tabla playing.

Osvaldo Golijov, the CSO's former resident composer, is a virtual poster child for multiculturalism and has been deeply involved in Ma's efforts from the beginning. His "Air to Air" (2006) jumps all over the map, from Christian-Arab and Arab-Muslim melodies to a section incorporating actual voices from the Chiapas district of Mexico, to a riotous setting of an 18th century Sardinian protest song. Not the least of its pleasures was watching and hearing an explosive face-off between Pato on gaita and Wu on sheng.

Upping the ante still further, "The Taranta Project" by the Sicilian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima, put four string players and percussionist Joseph Gramley through a hard-edged jam session highlighted by Gramley's heady scat-singing and body-slapping. In one particularly wild passage, Ma scrubbed his cello so furiously that you thought he would saw the instrument in two.

Das returned to the spotlight with an original work, "Shristi," whose percussive rhythmic drive, derived from intricate layering of complex Indian beat-patterns, evokes the creation of the world by the Hindu god Shiva. The sheer timbral variety he achieved on the tabla contributed to its hypnotic effect.

For a grand-slam finale before encore time, the full ensemble brought back a "greatest hit" from its CSO residency: "Ambush from Ten Sides," arranged by Wu Tong and Li Cang Sang from an ancient Chinese piece about warring armies. Staccato bursts of sheng and the harsh strumming of Yang Wei's pipa (Chinese lute) were perhaps the most vivid effects of onomatopoeia. The Ravinia throng went wild.


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