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A fine Silk Road, but with a few bumps

The message of cultural understanding works well, but host Yo-Yo Ma's overwrought playing raises questions.

November 04, 2002|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, which appeared at Royce Hall Friday night, included Western strings, brass and percussion, a Mongolian long song singer, a Chinese pipa player, an Indian tabla player and three Iranian musicians performing on native instruments. The music was more East than West, with works by Mongolian, Iranian and Indian composers, along with traditional Chinese and Iranian music. Debussy, who cocked his ear in the direction of Asia, stood in for Europe.

The goal of Ma and the many corporate sponsors for this ensemble is cultural understanding. East and West threaten each other politically; religions and cultures clash. But put musicians from just about any place together and it isn't long before they find common ground. And there is no more vivid example of musician as nonpolitical middleman than Ma. Besides traveling with colleagues from at least one country the White House labels evil, he has also performed with pianist (and National Security Advisor) Condoleezza Rice.

The UCLA concert was just a taste of the Silk Road road show, which has alighted in many other towns for extended residencies. But it was enough to see what a happy band of international troubadours this 20-member ensemble is.

It was also enough to show how natural it has become to mix and match instruments from different traditions. To find a tabla or sitar or African drum in a Western film score or a Western rock band is hardly news. In classical music, Telemann, Mozart and Beethoven imitated the sounds of Turkish instruments and probably would have borrowed from the instruments of other cultures had they encountered them. No ethnomusicology degree is needed to enjoy the Silk Road Ensemble.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 09, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 315 words Type of Material: Correction
Santur -- A review of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble in Monday's Calendar mistakenly identified the santur as a plucked instrument. It is struck with slender padded mallets.

In the most exciting work on the program, "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur" by Kayhan Kalhor, a snappy Iranian riff repeats over and over again, always embellished by solo instruments. The composer, playing a kemancheh (an Iranian spike fiddle) led the way, and his Iranian colleagues on santur (a plucked zither) and ney (mellow wood flute) were nearly as lively and inventive, with Ma, the other string players and tabla player all keeping the energy level high and the friendly competition interesting.

"Legend of Herlen" by Byambasuren Sharav, a Mongolian composer, featured long song singer Khongorzul Ganbaatar along with Ma on the morin khuur, a small fiddle with a horse-head peg. Long songs are short texts extended through ululating vocalizing. To this Sharav adds loud, mooring brass and pugnacious percussion to evoke Mongolian horns and drums. The effect is striking, especially when Ganbaatar's voice, like a force of nature, cuts through the brass and drums.

A new piece by Sandeep Das, the tabla player, was devised at one of the group's recent residencies. Here the virtuoso Indian drummer too easily overshadowed his Western drummers, while the Western strings never sounded very clever in their approach to a droning background. The pipa, the Chinese lute, was not integrated into the program, which was a shame, because Wu Man is a celebrated player (Lou Harrison wrote a concerto for her three years ago; Terry Riley is writing a piece for her and the Kronos Quartet). Instead, she played a traditional solo number; the three Iranians also gave a traditional demonstration.

Oddly enough, the most jolting performance was of Debussy's Cello Sonata, for which pianist Joel Fan joined Ma. Perhaps Ma felt a need to make Debussy an honorary fellow Silk Road traveler, perhaps the competitive camaraderie had encouraged intemperance, perhaps he just wanted to jazz it up. But every phrase provided him with a new opportunity for mugging and musical exaggeration. A consummate virtuoso, he pulled it off in this context, but not without raising disturbing questions. The lines between musicality and manipulation are becoming increasingly blurred in this famous grandstanding cellist. And one wonders how much his Silk Road project is ultimately a reflection of the ego of a single restless, jet-setting star.

The grandiosity of the Silk Road project inevitably requires compromise. An annoying statement in the program, for instance, demonstrated that Ford Motor Co.'s money is also paying for the polishing of its historical image with the project.

Still, there is no doubt that these are fine musicians doing music and society good. And if there were lingering suggestions Friday night that that was not all there was to it, it is not the first time business has been done this way on the Silk Road.

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