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ENJOY THE MUSIC: OFF THE MAP REVIEW

By: Joe Milicia

March 10, 2009

Enjoy The Music

  Off The Map is the Silk Road Ensemble's first CD without the direct musical participation of Yo-Yo Ma, the founder of the group and, as far as I can tell, performer in the world premieres of all four pieces on the disc, at Carnegie Hall, September 2006, following a Tanglewood Workshop project. But Ma was rarely a "star" performer in any of the works written for this chamber ensemble of Eastern and Western instruments, and a press release does say he "offered his artistic direction on the CD" at hand, where Eric Jacobsen plays the cello parts. Off the Map joins four previous Silk Road CDs (including Traditions and Transformations, with Chicago Symphony participation, reviewed here last year) with all the joyful energy, dazzle of instrumental colors and serene beauty that listeners have come to expect from the group.

The title of the album may be intended to connote adventurous repertoire and departure from Western norms, but if we take the Silk Road literally — stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean through Central Asia to Western China — the composers at hand are indeed off that map. Gabriela Lena Frank is an American whose mother was Peruvian; Angel Lam is from Hong Kong and Los Angeles ; Chicago-born Evan Ziporyn is a Bostonian with expertise in Balinese music; and the Argentinian-Jewish OsvaldoGolijov has lived in the U.S. for many years. Thus, as the CD booklet suggests, "Today, we view the Silk Road as a metaphor for borderless communication… This array of voices is truly global." One might ask whether the Silk Road Ensemble, in becoming a purveyor of "world music," is losing its more specific identity as a promoter of new music linking European traditions to the Middle East and Central Asia as far as Mongolia and Western China . Frank, a "Gringa-Latina" (her words), humorously mentions her "unexpected authenticity" for a Silk Road commission because she had a Chinese great-grandfather, but that's stretching it a bit thin. However, questions of "mission" fade in the presence of some very exciting music on the new issue.

Frank's Ritmos Anchinos is essentially a chamber concerto for pipa with sheng and string quartet. World Village's booklet provides an interview with each composer but no information on the non-Western instruments; however, the Silk Road Project's website provides pictures of each instrument, so the inquisitive can learn that the pipa is a Chinese lute, plucked but sometimes played mandolin-style, and the sheng is a Chinese mouth-organ. Also not found in the booklet (but available on Carnegie Hall's website) is the meaning of the title: "Anchino" is the composer's pun on chino and andino, so the piece is "Chinese/Andean Rhythms." It's a three-movement work in which the Chinese instruments make allusions to various Peruvian plucked and blown instruments. There are striking alternations between slow, melancholy passages and either sprightly or forceful rhythmic sections. An extended cadenza for the delicate pipa is found midway through the vigorous finale, with the bigger-voiced Western strings providing incisive accompaniment throughout. Wu Man, a stalwart of the Silk Road Ensemble who can also be heard playing the delightful Lou Harrison Pipa Concerto on the CSO disc [CSO-Resound CSOR 901 801], offers a richly characterful performance.

Angel Lam's Empty Mountain , Spirit Rain features the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, evocatively played by Kojiro Umezaki. The accompaniment is violin, cello, bass, marimba and other percussion. The work, in two sections titled "Silent Field" and "Rain," portrays a little girl's vision, as she walks home from kindergarten, of her grandmother at the time of the latter's death. The work may be available in two other recordings with partially different performers: as a free MP3 download of a Tanglewood performance and as a bonus track with Ma on the Barnes & Noble edition of Silk Road 's New Impossibilities CD — as stated on the Carnegie Hall website but not listed on the Barnes & Noble page! I haven't heard either of these, but I can't imagine a more lovely performance than the one on World Village , with the delicate sounds of the Japanese flute utterly in sync with the rhythms and intense feeling of the other players.

Evan Ziporyn's Sulvasutra might be described as a concerto for tabla, the drum of classical Indian music, accompanied by pipa and string quartet, except that the tabla (played here by Sandeep Das) is perfectly interwoven with the twangy pluckings of the pipa and a variety of waveline surges and sustained notes of the Western strings. The actual Sulvasutra is an ancient Vedic sutra "that describes the proper proportions for sacrificial altars," according to the booklet interview with the composer. ThusSulvasutra might be said to be about an intersection of mathematics, spirituality, and musical inspiration. The three movements, played without pause, are titled Ka(secret name of a Hindu creator deity), Agni (god of fire), and Letter to Pythagoras (3/4/5) (alluding to the sides of a right triangle) — or in the composer's words, starting with "the source," then "the spread of knowledge," leading to "the arrival, the Eureka moment." Overall, the piece builds from an eerily hushed beginning, before the tabla's dramatic entrance, to a rhythmically very intricate finale; the listener might be reminded of both Steve Reich and Indian ragas at times.

To conclude the program, Osvaldo Golijov's Air to Air includes the largest orchestration on the CD: all the players from the preceding works except for Das on the tabla, plus Galician bagpipe, kamancheh (Persian spiked fiddle), jang-go (Korean hourglass drum), nay (Persian/Azerbaijani flute), a lot more percussion, and "laptop," presumably to cue in the prerecorded liturgy used in the third movement. Again, I found it frustrating not to have more concrete information about the piece in the booklet interview (and the Internet provided no help that I could locate). But the four connected movements of this suite are all based on pre-existing materials: Christian and Muslim Arab melodies in the first; a Christian-Arab Good Friday service in the second; "prayers to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe" ( Chiapas , Mexico ) in the third; and a Sardinian protest song ("Walls Are Encircling the Land") in the finale. The title is doubtless a pun: in his notes for Azul ("Blue"), a recent piece written for Yo-Yo Ma, Golijov alludes to Pablo Neruda's poem "The Heights of Macchu Picchu," which opens with a line about wandering "from air to air" between the heavens and earth, and a recent Golijov vocal work is called Ayre (i.e., song). The song sources of Air to Air likewise alternate between heavenly and earthly subjects.

With its extremely varied moods and spectacular display of the instruments, Air to Air is an excellent finale for a Silk Road concert — and creates quite a racket in its bolder passages. Each movement has its own fascinations. The first has sections alternating between Galician-bagpipe wailings, a pulse-racing Arab dance, and a plaintive melody (featuring the kamancheh, I think) that may be Christian-Arab but reminds me in its opening phrase of the D. L. Moody hymn "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning." The "Good Friday" movement could be called an adagio arabesque, while the third movement, equally slow and delicate but in its own way, interweaves a variety of instruments with the pre-recorded Mexican chant. The brief finale is fast, densely scored, and raucous, with yelps and other vocalisms from players toward the end.

World Village 's engineers provide excellent sound to bring out the distinctive timbres of the Silk Road instruments in both the smaller groupings and, in Air to Air, the massed ensemble. The CD should give a great deal of pleasure to lovers of contemporary classical music and, like all Silk Road CDs, have crossover appeal as well.

 

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