New Music, World Class Musicians and still it misses the Mark

Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble kick off a six-city North American tour

First stop: Providence Performing Arts Center last Friday

The Silk Road Project is to be much more than a musical journey. Tracing the ancient trading route from Europe to China, Silk Road examines the sounds that enrich many of the hot spots on the geopolitical map. Yo-Yo Ma’s (pictured) idea began as a cultural exploration, but it has morphed into a symbol of global interdependency and fragility.

The Silk Road Project is marking its 10th anniversary this season. The Cambridge-based Ma and a broad mix of Azerbaijani, Iranian and American performers and composers opened their six-city tour in Providence and are to perform in Boston Sunday and Monday at Symphony Hall.

While it might seem an International project like this could have political leanings, Ma does not consider himself a political person. “There are different ways of looking at things: political engines, economic engines and cultural engines, Ma said. "What we try to do is a microcosm - we present a large swath of the world musically and try to make it work onstage. We honor living traditions. We are both a lab for creating things, and a study group to understand things better.”

Around the world, touring musicians are facing enormous difficulties due to heightened security; for Silk Road players, those difficulties border on the absurd. Ma continues:

“Take our Iranian friends. For any trip, they have to travel to Dubai first. And if their visas aren’t there waiting for them, they have to return home. They go back and forth many times before they even get here, and then when they do, they spend hours with Homeland Security.”

The two-hour concert in Providence Rhode Island was less a showcase for Yo-Yo Ma, and more an exploration of new works performed by the ensemble. The musical focus of the current Silk Road tour is a multimedia opera presentation of “Layla and Majnun” - what Ma calls “the Persian ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ” The work, a living tradition in Azerbaijan, features Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, both acknowledged masters of Persian mugham singing. The production of “Layla and Majnun” follows traditional staging - the singers are seated and there are props - but it also incorporates a video feed.

However, if you think this is a concert featuring the superstar cellist, think again. Ma "sat at the back of the stage plucking his cello and peeling off the most rudimentary riffs," according to Channing Gray of the Rhode Island News. The program also includes new compositions and arrangements by Evan Ziporyn, Gabriela Lena Frank and Osvaldo Golijov - nearly a dozen works in all, covering a breathtaking span of cultures.

Highlights (or lowlights) from Ms Gray's review:

Most of the program was made up of hard-core contemporary scores that featured Chinese and Middle Eastern instruments but were pretty tedious.

Evan Ziporyn’s minimalist Sulvasutra, which began with the strings squeezing out screechy glissandos, was especially trying. That featured tabla player Sandeep Das in a sort of running accompaniment that rarely showed off the possibilities of this classic Indian drum.

But Boston-area composer Osvaldo Golijov’s jazzy Turceasca was a winner. This was an up-beat arrangement of a Romanian gypsy tune that a six-member ensemble tore through with abandon. It was the best offering of the night, tight, driving, joyous music.

Also of note was the American premiere of a new rendition of the Azeri opera Layla and Majnun, a sort of Central Asian version of Romeo and Juliet that featured two amazing singers who provided some of the most heartfelt listening of the night.

It sounds as if the start of the tour is perhaps a bit rough, and maybe the music is not quite what the reviewer expected. Well see how the ensemble does on the rest of their tour. There are no reviews as yet of the performance in Boston. I will update this post when I can find more information.


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