Saturday evening, I had the privilege and honor of seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform with the Silk Road Ensemble in acoustically-perfect Hill Auditorium. It was truly a stunning and breath-taking event. From the instant we were in our seats, we left Ann Arbor for destinations along the Silk Road – it was not just a musical experience, but a quest to far off lands. Warm, tingly, and adventurous, it was a spectacle in which, I’m fairly certain, every person in Hill that night was swept away.
The first song they performed was entitled the “Silk Road Suite” with four separate parts making up the piece. I think it was my second favorite of the performance. The rhythms kept you wanting more, rocking gently in your seat, and I couldn’t believe how much time had passed by the end. The Silk Road Ensemble performs without a conductor, keep in mind, so it was amazing to see how well they kept in rhythm – reading off each other’s’ movements and marking their pace in time.
The second and third pieces were pretty wild, but enjoyable nonetheless. I felt they went on a little too long, but I understood the artistic drive that held them within a certain space of suspense and phraseology. “The Prospect of Colored Desert” was about a tiger stalking its prey, if I heard the introduction correctly, and it made use of dramatic imagery with slides, slurs, and flurries of notes and percussion. “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion” was anything but traditional, as the program note indicates as well. It was interesting, but not very distinguishable from the rest, in my opinion.
The piece following intermission and the award ceremony, in which Yo-Yo Ma was presented with the UMS Distinguished Artist Award, was my absolute favorite, I believe. It was called, “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged…” As the title depicts, it is a hopeful story that you can almost imagine watching on stage as the artists rocked and swayed to the rhythm of their instruments. The program note on this piece reads, “The musical voice of kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor is a natural fit for this piece, in part because Persian music often expresses a deep desire to love oneself in love.” The mood that transcended over us all caused us to weep, metaphorically at least, alongside the droning of the kamancheh.
(What the **** is a kamencheh?)
The second to last piece, “seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened” had a powerful message and if nothing else, it was absolutely intense. The shakuhachi was accompanied by a recording of electronically-generated music (shaku – what??). The story of the piece is to commemorate the tragedy of the tsunami that altered life in Japan in 2011 for so many Japanese. There was a haunting beat that led the shakuhachi in loops and circles, up and down; one could imagine getting lost in the music – lost in the tsunami – and in the horrific stories of the past that we sometimes forget…”as if none of this ever happened.”
And to conclude this intensely moving and artistic display of terrific talent from the Silk Road Ensemble, they played a stunning piece entitled, “Suite from Book of Angels.” This beat pumped out a rhythm that you couldn’t sit still and listen to. The drums made this piece for me – keeping pace for the other instruments while also treading water on its own at certain moments. It was fantastic.
Yo-Yo Ma writes in the program book: “The Silk Road Ensemble is a musical model that requires curiosity, collaboration, and wholehearted enthusiasm from all the participants. The music we play does not belong to just one culture or even to only the Silk Road region. Ensemble members are united in their demonstration of virtuosity and generosity…” “Enthusiasm” is just one word to describe the countenance of those performers on stage last night. They looked elated the entire time they were performing, and the energy they brought to the show was unlike anything I’d ever seen by an ensemble of this size. Such a display of cross-cultural unity and musical harmony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble presented something uniquely beautiful and a truly stellar performance.