Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Silk Road Ensemble raises the Hilbert Circle Theatre roof

Silk Road Ensemble, with featured players Wu Man and Kayhan Kalhor seated to Yo-Yo Ma's left.
The Hilbert Circle Theatre took on an unwonted intimacy Monday night as the full Silk Road Ensemble — 17 musicians under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma — welcomed a full house to its world, and to a significant part of the world.

The theme was "home" and how it is defined in emotional, physical, permanent, and temporary terms. Music as a vehicle cruises easily over the verbal meanings of home, taking in cultures geographically remote from one another in ways that display their universal appeal. The annual summer tour of the group is focusing on the concept of home in connection with its new CD, "Sing Me Home." The recent showing here of the documentary "The Music of Strangers" also drove interest in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's presentation.

A much-reduced representation played the Palladium in February. That gave Central Indiana a foretaste of the grander display of SRE's gifts on Monday, with the added bonus of the founder himself, master cellist Ma. The repertoire, necessarily consisting of many arrangements and new compositions, does not purport to present the world's instruments and musical styles in a manner that would excite professional folklorists.

Instead, the Silk Road Ensemble presents to audiences instruments in combinations that make musical sense while acknowledging appropriate ethnic influences on phrasing, melody, and rhythm that shape the musical expression. A case point in is Colin Jacobsen's "Atashgah," a piece for Western string quintet plus hand drum and the Persian spiked fiddle known as the kamancheh. The composer, a guiding force in two outstanding classical groups, the chamber orchestra the Knights and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, drew his inspiration from time spent in Iran. The piece opened with a quiet pizzicato pattern that eventually flowered into a setting over which Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh virtuoso, could improvise. The tone of this ornamentally played, bowed instrument lent a wistful cast to the performance, reaching a part of the emotional spectrum that Western string instruments can only suggest.

Silk Road Ensemble pianist, bagpiper Cristina Pato.
The concert opened with something in a droll vein: a duet for gaita (Galician bagpipes) and suona (a Chinese double-reed instrument) given particular flair amid its intense interweavings by Cristina Pato and Wu Tong, respectively. With gestures of attraction and repulsion, both gestural and musical, the "Fanfare for Gaita and Suona" made for a zesty appetizer.  From that point on, the audience was swept into larger-scale pieces — initially three works played without pause: Mali, Ireland, and (I'm guessing) China were the sources. The finale was an original piece by Wu Man called "Green (Vincent's Tune)" that moved through a mammoth crescendo toward a vigorous climax.

Wu Tong, who was also featured on a reed instrument of several pipes called the sheng, had the concert's vocal showcase. It was a kind of centerpiece for the "Sing Me Home" theme as it combined the English words applied to the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony with a Mandarin version of "Going Home."  The arrangement was quite sensitive to the original setting, and the singer's performance held the large audience spellbound. Also riveting concertgoers' attention  was the graceful cadenza opening an evocation of Roma (gypsy) culture for the player of the lute-like Chinese pipa, Wu Man.

A program of such variety is difficult to summarize, or even to identify highlights in. I think it worthwhile to note the extensive blend of improvised and composed music, and the variety of ensemble texture, in the program finale by Kinan Azmeh, SRE's clarinetist, titled "Wedding" after village celebrations of such events in his native Syria.

The raucousness of some moments was balanced by the tender lyricism of others. Azmeh hinted in his spoken introduction (one of several by ensemble members in the course of the program) that there might be an encore. The audience's response to "Wedding" was unambiguously enthusiastic, so the entire group came back onstage for an unconventional run through "Take the 'A' Train," a theme song for many years of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Tabla player Sandeep Das provided the gradually accelerating pattern depicting a train leaving the station (closer to a steam locomotive than the subway train the title refers to, but that's OK). His fellow percussionists took that up, joined by everybody in a display of coordinated power and joy — typical qualities whenever SRE members play their instruments together.

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