Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

World-class World Music in an outdoor setting

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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Life is complicated. More than one thing is going on whether we like it or not. This could be a definition of music too because it’s a celebration and a leave-taking and we’re always doing both. We say hello as goodbye brushes past. Music is just music or is it? Well yes and no, and it always means business, and its business is always time.

These thoughts came to mind when I caught the seventeen piece Silk Road Ensemble’s concert at UC Berkeley’s Hearst Greek Theatre, and how could they not? John Galen Howard’s Greek Revival performance place
with its stage backed by rows of Doric columns, its fan-shaped seating area extending from the ground floor to the terraced top — classical, monumental, like history and music written upper case. Imposing. Huge. Time-worn, Time-less. The opening Fanfare for Gaita and Suona — Galician bagpipes and Chinese horn was played by Cristina Pato and Wu Tong, and its drones, overtones and cluster chords made a joyful sound which vanished just as quickly.

Everything came and went, and nothing overstayed its welcome. Wu Tong on the ancient Chinese mouth organ sheng and the Chinese pipa virtuosa Wu Man played a charming and very evocative duet, the dry sounds of the pipa complementing and contrasting with the warm overtones of the sheng. One of the two violinists in the Brooklyn Rider Quartet — Colin Jacobsen ( 1978 – )– the other one here was Johnny Gandelsman, plus their violist Nick Cords, but not Jacobsen’s cellist brother Eric — contributed to Colin Jacobsen’s transparent and very evocative “Atashgah “which unselfconsciously blended the music of Persian spike fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor’s kemancheh with more familiar western musical intervals and gestures. Imagination is always the key, and the SRE is blessed with composer-performers like Jacobsen who have strong musical personalities as soloists and team players.They can stay in the background or be center stage, and playing more than one role seldom happens in “classical music” where the emphasis is usually on a famous dead composer.

And speaking of famous dead composers SRE percussionist Shane Shanahan produced a carefully paced and immensely varied new version sans vocal of the 1939 “Take the ‘A’ Train ” by Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967 ) which was the signature tune of the band of that force of nature Duke Ellington (1899-1972). Shanahan’s “take” was New York raw with startling but completely apt metrical and textural changes. The highly percussive writing trumped the polite cocktail jazz versions we so often hear. Everyone had good parts, but the one for Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh (1976- ) was even more sensual and “industrial “.

The SRE ended the concert with an expanded version of Azmeh’s signature tune “Wedding” ( 2007) which he wrote for his trio HEWAR ( DIALOGUE ) where the instrumentation is — oud ( Arabic lute ),clarinet, and soprano voice. It isn’t exactly “open form “, but being a “lead sheet ” it allows considerable freedom for improvisation within a clearly defined structure where the players, like the guests at a Syrian wedding in the village square, are expected to bring their own sound to the party. The band here certainly did. They’ve played it many times, but as Ellington used to say — ” it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing! ” and this one was swing supreme. And when this “Wedding” ended, the full house, with not even a nanosecond pause. lept to its feet, and erupted with rapturous applause. A leave taking for sure but one which was also utterly joyful.

18-25.viii.16 c 2016 MICHAEL MCDONAGH

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