On August 16, 2016, YoYo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble performed 16 memorable pieces, 2 in encore, at The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, many drawn from their newest album “Sing Me Home”. Indeed, the genial and well-spoken Ma, a wizard on the cello, along with other members of the 17-piece group made reference throughout the performance to the theme of “home”. In particular, they mentioned what “home” meant for those members of the audience whose families have split up, and those members of the ensemble, like Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian kamancheh (Iranian violin) player, for whom going home has become a complicated issue.
The evening was marked, as it always is with Silk Road, by an abundance of otherworldly sounds of such beauty the heart is stirred. Ancient sounds, splendidly blended mixed-cultural pieces, unusual ethnic instruments, all coupled with newly- commissioned and ensemble-composed works are presented with plenty of opportunity to showcase individual members, both solo, in duet and in distinct groupings- and of course, all 17 performed together on certain pieces.
This program in particular consisted of informal duets, charmingly demonstrating a seductive camaraderie. It opened with an amazing “Fanfare for Gaita and Suona”, with the multi-talented Cristina Pato, resplendent in a strapless evening gown, on Galician bagpipes, calling forth and being answered by Wu Tong on the suona, a Chinese double-reeded horn. Mention must be made here that Pato also played the piano energetically throughout the evening, and in one song enthusiastically trilled a flute. Later, Kinan Azmeh wove a spell with his clarinet joined by Jeffrey Beecher on bass in a mystical hip piece called “Syrian Improvisation”. An amazing performance piece, simply entitled “Duo” with Wu Tong on the sheng, a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument and Wu Man on pipa, or Chinese lute, was a mystical version of call and return. The last duet joined Sandeep Das on the tablas, a Hindustani membranaphone percussion instrument along with Kojiro Umezaki, on shakulachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, as they performed the deeply intimate and spiritual “If you shall Return”.
Although many of the musical instruments seem unusual, they are well-known to their unique lands of origin, and blend or resonate spectacularly with the traditional Western European orchestral instuments played by anything but traditional musicians. Silk Road has 4 persussionists- they lead and carry the rhythms, sometimes kneeling, often shot from above and reflected on the huge screens- Haruka Fujii, Josepj Gramley, Shane Sjhanahan and Mark Suter created a “joyous noise”. The blend of rhythms is mesmerizing.
The irrepressible Mike Block on cello- holding it as lightly as Johnny Gandlesman held his violin or Nicholas Cords cradled his viola-strutted the stage. The strings met the pipes and the entire Ensemble held the audience in the palm of its collective and clasped hands. This is an organization that loves to make music, whose members join together as virtuosos and committed beings. They laugh with each other, they express their deepest emotions and their joy- and the audience loved them back!