Thursday, March 12, 2009

WPAS - The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma - 03/11/09

Frank: Ritmos Anchinos
Ziporyn: Salvasutra
Perapaskero: Turceasca
Hajibeyov: Layla and Majnun - Alim Qasimov & Fargana Qasimova

Last night’s program may not have presented what the Western world considers classical music and which is, after all, the raison d'être of this blog, but why always listen to the Western world? Not content to be one of the most respected and beloved musicians around today, cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma decided just about 10 years ago to branch out and help make our planet a better place to live on by connecting people and cultures all around the globe with his Silk Road Project. As one man's tradition is another man's novelty, this concert was an opportunity for the Silk Road Ensemble to take us on a trail-blazing trip around the world in two solid hours, if not 80 days. I actually had the privilege to hear this very eclectic group of uniformly brilliant musicians perform at the fabulous Smithsonian Folk Life Festival dedicated to The Silk Road back in 2002, and it was with great anticipation that my friend Jennifer and I went to Strathmore yesterday for another enlightening multi-cultural experience.

Needless to say that none of the pieces listed on the program rang the slightest bell, and from the very first notes, it became quite obvious that we were indeed entering a whole different musical territory. Written by the Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese composer Gabriela Lena Frank and happily mixing Latin and Western musical forms, Ritmos Anchinos took some getting used to, but the familiarization was pleasantly eased by the star of the piece, the pipa, whose playful and almost human sounds occasionally stirred amused chuckles from the audience.
Composer, clarinetist and Balinese gamelan aficionado Evan Ziporyn's Sulvasutra brought to life an ancient Sanskrit treatise about the proper engineering for Vedic altars through vivid evocations of the universe before the Big Bang, the sacrificial fire, and the ever-expanding mathematical formulas that keep the fire alive. The string quartet and pipa expert surrounding the relentless Indian tabla player expressively played the composition's three rhythmic cycles of four, five and three - the sides of the right triangle - from the hushed, uncertain quietness of the Beginning to the fierce fire blasting, and eventually reaching all corners of the globe.
Turceasca ("Turkish piece") is the signature tune of the very popular Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haiidouks, who are particularly well-known for their very open performances during which musicians can come and go in a very fluid and spontaneous fashion. After being arranged to incorporate other unexpected influences by Osvaldo Golijov, the piece exuded spirited, festive Gypsy vibes as well as more classical, disciplined flavors, and was an irresistibly fun way to celebrate intermingling musical heritages and let the good times roll.
Layla and Majnun, the early 20th century Azerbaijani opera based on a beloved classical Arabic love story, the Romeo and Juliet of the Middle East and Central Asia, is a multi-media project that assembled a wide array of musicians sitting in a half circle around the renowned Azerbaijani father-daughter singing duo of Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, who were impersonating the star-crossed lovers. The music was a compelling mix of beautifully vibrant sounds thanks to the winning association of Asian and Western traditions with mugham, a form of Azerbaijani modal music where stories and emotions are expressed through songs and traditional instruments. The singing, on the other hand, was for me much harder to get into as my Western ears are far from being accustomed to such mournful and lingering sounds. As for the lyrics, whose translation was helpfully provided, they were just about as hopelessly syrupy as any good old Western opera featuring a doomed love story.

Being exposed to such an impressive range of musical traditions and combinations thereof by such dedicated artists was quite a trip indeed, and proved that even if the path less travelled does not always lead to the same spontaneous rapture that more familiar and beloved works would, the mental stimulation and increased open-mindedness it promotes are rewards enough to be deeply grateful for this very different experience.

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