Arts & Events

Silk Road Ensemble Plays Berkeley’s Greek Theatre

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 19, 2016 - 02:38:00 PM

Founded in 1998 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road promotes cross-cultural music performance and international collaboration. On Thursday evening, August 18, the Silk Road Ensemble performed an inspiring concert of world music at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. Performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo was admirably self-effacing in this concert, as he allowed the group and its individual members to enjoy the spotlight. Yo-Yo Ma’s famed abilities as a cello soloist were only featured in one number in this concert, a Finnish folksong for piano and cello by Michio Mamiya, in which Yo-Yo Ma was accompanied on piano by Spanish artist Cristina Pato. Ms. Pato was also featured in the concert’s opening number, this time on Galician bagpipes. In this opening work, a Fanfare for Gaita and Suona, Cristina Pato was paired with Chinese pipist Wu Man; and the two musicians serenaded each other and the audience from opposite sides of the Greek Theatre’s stage, occasionally coming together at center stage only to retreat once again to the sides. This opener was exhilarating and exciting, and it foreshadowed the wonderful music to come. 

Next came a Tuareg song from Mali in West Africa. Although the Silk Road Ensemble includes no African or African-American musicians, they played this Tuareg song with appropriate attention to its rhythms, which are derived from the movements of textile dyers working in indigo pits. Following this piece came a very popular Irish fiddle tune, O’Neill’s Cavalry March, featuring Colin Jacobson on violin. Next came a piece composed by Wu Man, who first heard the melody hummed by his four year-old son. Wu Man turned the tune into a composition entitled Green. Although it starts out softly, Green builds and builds into a very loud – indeed too loud –finale, which rivals in cacaphonous volume many a heavy metal finale. Following this piece came a duet from Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and bassist Jeffrey Beecher. Entitled Syrian Improvisations, this was an atmospheric, moody piece of great poignancy. After the aforementioned Finnish folksong played by Yo-Yo Ma on cello and Cristina Pato on piano came a duet with Wu Man on pipes accompanied by a Chinese female artist Wu Tong, who played a traditional Chinese equivalent of a guitar. 

By far the longest and most complex work on this concert’s program was Atashgah, composed by Silk Road Ensemble violinist Colin Jacobson, who took his inspiration for this piece from an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple he saw while visiting his colleague Kayhan Kalhor in the latter’s native Iran. Kalhor himself was featured prominently in this beautiful work on kamencheh, a spiked violin from Persia. Incidentally, one novelty in this piece was a cello played standing up by Mike Block, something I had never seen before. Next came a piece featuring Sandeep Das on tabla and Wu Man on pipes. Entitled If you shall return, this piece was inspired by boatsmen’s songs heard by Sandeep Das on India’s Brahmaputra River as well as by boatsmen’s songs heard by Kojiro Umezaki on China’s Yangtse River. Following this work was an arrangement by William Arms Fisher of Antonín Dvorák’s Going Home. Featured on vocals in this piece was Wu Man, whose ringing tenor voice sang in Mandarin and English. Closing out the first half of the concert was an arrangement by Silk Road percussionist Shane Shanahan of Billy Strayhorn’s famous jazz tune Take the “A” Train.  

After intermission, Silk Road Ensemble returned to play Cut the Rug, composed for the group by David Bruce, who took his inspiration from the tribal rugs woven in Central Asia and Turkey as well as from gypsy music and flamenco. Next came an arrangement by Ensemble member Colin Jacobson of Paco de Lucia’s influential Zyryab, a piece celebrating the 9th-century Kurdish poet Ziryab, who worked at the court of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba, Spain, where he introduced the Persian lute and thus became a sort of godfather to the Spanish guitar and flamenco. Wu Tong was featured in this piece on the Chinese equivalent of a guitar. The final work on this concert’s printed program was Wedding, a composition by clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, who set out to capture the musical atmosphere of a Syrian village wedding. As part of this long work there was a thrilling bit of wordless vocalise in Arabic musical style sung by Wu Man. Silk Road Ensemble then went on to play two lively encores. Many of the pieces performed in this concert can be heard on the group’s latest CD, Sing Me Home.