Press Article

Silk Road Ensemble, founded by Yo-Yo Ma, thrives on experimentation and leaving musician's comfort zones

The Silk Road Ensemble will perform at the MCASD Sherwood Auditorium on Sunday, Oct. 20.

The Sherwood Auditorium transforms into a laboratory of sorts Sunday. Not one with beakers full of combustible chemicals, but the kind nurturing the chemistry linking musicians on a mission to create music that lacks a defined point of origin.

It’s a journey that storied cellist Yo-Yo Ma started in 1998 when he founded the Silk Road Project. The performing arts nonprofit took its name from the historical trade routes that connected people across Eurasia. Two years later came the formation of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Sunday’s concert, which does not include ensemble artistic director Ma, is part of a 15th-anniversary tour that features players on kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle), shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown bamboo flute), gaita (Galician bagpipe), tabla (Indian drums), bass, cello, viola, violin and percussion. It is presented by the La Jolla Music Society.

“There’s definitely a lab feel to what we do, which is taking ourselves out of our comfort zone to see what the possibilities are, really. And do that fearlessly,” said shakuhachi musician Kojiro Umezaki, a 12-year Silk Road member.

The anniversary tour program serves as an ensemble overview. In the “newer” corner is “Atashgah,” a piece from the September release “A Playlist Without Borders.” Violinist Colin Jacobsen’s composition, which premiered in 2011, shines a light on Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor.

“It’s a really beautiful, lush series of movements that sort of tap into the world of Kayhan. We felt like that’s a really great representation of who we are,” Umezaki said.

Not part of the performance is a “Playlist” piece by ensemble member Wu Man called “Night Thoughts.” The Carlsbad-based pipa player will not be appearing Sunday. The small ensemble piece is built on the interplay between pipa (Chinese lute), shakuhachi and jang-go (Korean hourglass-shaped drum).

Umezaki seems predisposed for this line of work.

“Since my mother’s Danish and my father’s Japanese, and I went to an American school in Tokyo, I kind of grew up in this morass of multiculturism. And I think that motivated me much more than other Japanese kids to tap into my roots,” he said of his ’80s youth in which others sought out broader, more modern culture.

That sense of curiosity, combined with accomplishment, led to an invitation for Umezaki to meet Ma in 2001. Over the years, the ensemble has changed from a music group to something more familial, he said, where the artistic director is “kind of the cheerleader.”

“There’s no hierarchical system like you might have in a corporation or something. Yo-Yo happens to be somebody who started this family, and we look to him as somebody who is the inner part of the soul of the family,” he said.

So, he’s really not like a college football coach?

“No, he’s much more again like the crazy uncle you listen to because he respects all members of the family.”


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