Silk Road serves up a wide-ranging, easily digestible international meal

By Dorothy Hindman

The Silk Road Ensemble (minus Yo-Yo Ma) performed Wednesday night at New World Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Eschewing the discordant battle of the first presidential debate, a full house enjoyed an evening of multicultural harmony Wednesday with the Silk Road Ensemble at the New World Center.

In their first appearance in Miami in a decade, the Silk Road spent the day working with the New World fellows, capping off their visit with an evening of compositions designed to showcase each member’s talent.

Silk Road’s repertoire is heavy on drones and repetition that doesn’t make too many demands on Western ears. Violins, viola, cello, and double bass, plus exotic instruments like tabla (pitched Indian drums), sheng (a Chinese reed pan pipe), kamancheh (a Persian bowed instrument), and bawu (a Chinese reed flute), provide just enough timbral twang to keep ears perked up.  A Persian rug draped over the percussion platform, attire ranging from concert black to colorful silks, and ambient lighting all contributed to the effect of a gentle melding of East and West.

Many of the works on the program were written expressly for Silk Road.  The best of these, although the most demanding for the audience, was Gabriela Lena Frank’s eclectically titled ¡Chayraq!: Rough Guide to a Modern Day Tawantinsuyu.  Despite the name, the work was the most unified compositionally, consistently colorful in its use of violin, cello, pipa (a Chinese mandolin) and two percussionists.  Performed with a true sense of ensemble, the twelve short movements were mesmerizing.

That said, Silk Road Ensemble is more of a jam band than a classical orchestra.  Their full ensemble works are suites: short, contrasting sections or pieces of music strung together, designed primarily to spotlight soloists instead of make artistically cohesive statements.

Silk Road Suite opened the program with the improvised duet “Wandering Winds,” with Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute) and Wu Tong on bawu entering from opposite sides of the stage, although the amplification jarringly placed their sound squarely in the middle.  When they came together, they proved sensitive foils for a lyrical work that had them dancing as well as playing.

From there, Kayhan Kalhor’s “Gallop of a Thousand Horses” burst forth, with tabla, frame drum and cajón (a Peruvian box drum) providing the galloping.  Richly drawn strings added vitality to a series of ostinati that invited soloists to participate.  Wu Man’s exquisite pipa playing on the third movement, Umezaki’s “at ease, fairly, eclipse,” transcended the potential hazards of amplification with depth of timbre and impeccably clean technique.  Accompanied by Umezaki on shakuhachi and Wu Tong on sheng, discreet metal percussion from Haruka Fujii and Shane Shanahan, and electronic echo effects, the work was a standout.  Finally, Sapo Perapaskero’s “Turceasca” featured a lively Turkish wedding celebration song with a solo from Cristina Pato’s squealing, crying, flamboyantly fringed gaita (a Galician bagpipe).

Vijay Iyer’s Playlist for an Extreme Occasion continued the suite theme despite its postmodern title.  A jazz pianist, Iyer’s muscular rhythms and courageous dissonances provided a high-energy close to the first half of the concert.  A suite from Book of Angels, four arrangements by ensemble members drawn from American avant-garde composer John Zorn’s Masada project ended the evening with similar results and a blistering tabla solo from Sandeep Das.

There was plenty of slow music as well, with solos over sustained drones displaying various Eastern improvisational traditions.  The best of these was the stand-alone traditional Japanese Lullaby from Itsuki Village.  Dramatically shaking the shakuhachi for intensely expressive vibrato, Umezaki’s masterful handling of the flute’s overtones against a soft string drone delivered a poetic rendition.

Rounding out the program, violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah drew inspiration from a Zoroastrian fire temple.  Beginning promisingly with pizzicato strings flowering into large harmonic structures and extended passages for Kalhor’s kamancheh, Atashgah unfortunately went on far too long in its mesh of Western romanticism and Eastern mysticism.

Posted in Performances

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Thu Oct 4, 2012
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