Ma his Silk Roadies were at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Saturday night, dishing up some hot international fare. The entire program was arranged for an unusual mix of Western and non-Western instruments. Naturally, the exotic sounds they made called to mind the far-away places once explored by Marco Polo.
The concert opened with the “Silk Road Suite,” an extended multi-cultural tour de force featuring Galician, Sicilian, Turkish and Egyptian-inspired music. The first piece in the suite, Wandering Winds,” was an improvisation that began with two of the ensemble’s musicians playing a mournful duet on traditional Asian wind instruments – a sheng (a Chinese vertical reed) and shakuhachi (a Japanese end-blown flute).
These searching winds served as a kind of convocation, summoning the rest of the ensemble into the action. Pianist, vocalist and Galician bagpipe player Cristina Pato joined in, singing an impassioned lament that was matched in emotional intensity by Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh – a honey-toned, bowed Persian instrument.
Ma is founder and artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble, but he’s not the group’s frontman. On Saturday, he functioned more like a jazz-band leader, playing occasional solos but mostly stepping aside to let others bask in the limelight. One musician who shined brightly was Yang Wei, who managed to make his pipa – or Chinese lute – sound jazzy even when he played at blistering speeds.
The Silk Road Ensemble specializes in playing a kind of crossover that mixes classical, jazz and world music. It’s often prismatically beautiful, but much of the music is also rhythmically spiky and dissonant. Few of the tunes qualify as easy listening. That was certainly the case with the second piece on the set, Jia Daqun’s “The Prospect of Colored Desert.” Arranged for violin, cello, sheng, pipa and percussion, this piece was filled with cello drones, violin slides and rhythmically off-kilter percussion. Ma and his players gave it a colorful and lively reading.
The concert’s first half ended with a commissioned work from jazz pianist Vijay Iyer called “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion.” As the title suggests, this work is episodic and intensely dramatic and virtuosic. There are extended sections in the piece that sound like traditional raga, and others that called to mind Terry Riley’s minimalist musings. Pato was especially impressive in this piece, playing both piano and Galician bagpipes with color and emotion. Tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das provided dazzling rhythmic support.
My favorite piece of the night was Colin Jacobsen’s “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged,” which opened the second half. Throughout this piece, Kalhor played his kamancheh with the immediacy, spontaneity and feeling of a great singer. The Ensemble’s string players provided him with gorgeous, shimmering accompaniment.
The most intimate piece of the evening was Kojiro Umezaki’s “Seasons continue, as if none of this ever happened,” which was written in response to the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. Scored for solo Japanese flute and electronics, the piece is a heartfelt meditation. Umezaki played it with simplicity and immediacy.
The concert ended with three pieces from John Zorn’s “Book of Angels.” These works are a brilliant mix of avant-garde jazz and klezmer, and the Silk Road Ensemble played every note with exuberance. The thunderous ovation that followed resulted in two encores. The performance was a triumph of international cooperation. Now if we could just get the rest of the world to work together like that.