The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma
Tomorrow and Saturday, 8 p.m.
$10 – $100
The name of The Silk Road Ensemble comes from the collection of trade routes that, for 2,000 years, branched across Europe, Asia and Africa. This physical connection had implications far beyond the exchange of desired goods — it sparked ideas. Goods were the exchange, but culture was the contact high. Both deliberately and inadvertently, new ideas lead to innovation and acculturation. The Silk Road Project is Yo-Yo Ma’s effort to recreate those trends of cultural collaboration at relative warp-speed.
These days, actual travel or trade seem almost unnecessary for gathering culture. The privileged, successful people who can sell out a concert hall hardly need to go anywhere to juice up their craft when endless information is available in books or from the Internet. Or so it would seem. The Silk Road Project’s artistic director, the unstoppably buoyant cellist and educator Yo-Yo Ma, thinks differently.
The cultural exchanges that historically took weeks — if not years — to occur are made, familiarized and expanded vigorously by Ma and his collaborators. The Silk Road Ensemble creates new music in real time and space, gathering far-flung artists together on one stage. The collaborative power of this diverse, mobile and committed group seems exponential, and the face-to-face live performance focus of Ma’s Ensemble gives that power room to grow.
The Ensemble — the musical center of the Project — is comprised of almost 60 members who originate from countries like Azerbaijan, Korea and Argentina. It was founded by Ma in 1998 as a philanthropic effort and began as a musical body in 2000 at Tanglewood, an ambitious outdoor music festival held in Lenox, Mass. The Ensemble will perform this weekend with around 15 members in two separate programs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Hill Auditorium.
Focused originally on music from central and east Asia — along the original Silk Road — the group’s work has since expanded to include music from nearly every part of the world, propelled in part by its diverse membership. Although commissioning pieces is still a central part of the project’s outreach, much of their music is now composed by the Ensemble’s own musicians, with their enormous different world of sound in mind.
University alum Mark Suter, who composes for the Ensemble, described the process: “Sometimes someone will bring in something and we all add what we think will be pertinent and interesting.”
Sometimes, he added, “it’s based purely on improvisation. Other times, they have an idea that’s more fleshed out, and we work from that. It really varies based on who brings the idea.”
Suter spoke warmly of composing with the group and its potential for encouraging even more exchange.
“You have to trust each other,” Suter said. “The real beauty of this group is that we’re always curious and trying to learn from working from within.”
Suter, who plays percussion in the group, spoke of the Ensemble as a metaphor, drawing out a historical phenomenon’s implications. The collaboration ends up “connecting neighborhoods,” he said, echoing the statement on The Silk Road Project website’s main page: “Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.”
“Neighborhoods” may seem like merely a cute word choice, but its overtones are on point; in Ma’s setup, the boundaries between distinct ways of being can be crossed as easily as a single street or a theater stage.
Much of the project’s success hinges on its ability to make small adjustments to age-old traditions, enabling them to share common ground. If there is one consistent cultural note in the ensemble, it’s the Western tradition of staged concert hall performance. The standard provides structure: a unifying, equalizing premise for the open-ended musical experimentation. In it, Ma continuously brings the performers back to a central hub of their collaboration.
Ma is a hub himself — a grounding presence. Joseph Lam, a University professor of Musicology who is familiar with the ensemble’s work and Ma’s influence, says that Ma asks the artists “to learn from each other, with (Ma) as a guiding principle.”
Ma’s appeal to the public is evidently no simple matter of force of personality — combined, of course, with his remarkable skill as a musician. He’s not just a spectacle or a star. His name instead has a near panacea effect. As a benefactor and innovator of the arts (and their creation, mobility and education), Ma is an icon of well-executed ideas. He puts forth the vision of arts as wholism into action.
“He creates a platform so everyone can communicate,” Lam said.
This may sound a little too easy. Does getting together enough people from enough corners of the globe and crowding together enough disparate instruments result in something “innovative” by nature of smorgasbord alone? Lam says no.
“If you look deeper, it’s not totally rosy,” said Lam.
Certain musical traditions lose too much of themselves in combination, he said. Lam uses Kunqu, the Chinese opera, as an example: “Some ritual music would not work well with Yo-Yo Ma’s. Nothing can be everything to everyone.”
This isn’t a failure on Ma’s part, Lam suggested, but an asset of the Project.
“It behooves a more critical audience,” said Lam. “If they are fascinated about (the breadth of tradition) they’ll ask, ‘What do you gain, what do you lose?’ ” It’s exactly this sense of awareness that the Silk Road Project hopes to engender through performance, and it is their greatest accomplishment as a musical force.
Lam spoke of Ma’s Project endeavor as “humanitarian.” On his website, Ma is quoted as saying, “There is no tradition that exists that was not the result of successful and sustained innovation.”
In gathering disparate artists already expert in established traditions, and encouraging recombination, Ma pursues a humanitarian effort: making room for creative seedlings in the crowded status quo.