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February 27, 2007

Silk Road spans eclectic musical terrain

If Lego were asked to design a horn, they might come up with something like the sheng. Akin to a small toy castle, the pieced-together arrangement of 21 thin pipes delivers clear, sustained single notes, reedy warbling, and earsplitting power chords. The sheng shook the Iinternational House to its foundations during Friday night’s performance by the East-meets-West supergroup Silk Road Ensemble.

Understanding how this eclectic venture came to fruition requires some clarification in terms. The Silk Road Project, brainchild of its artistic director, Yo-Yo Ma, was founded in 1999 as an initiative for artistic education and innovation. The 13 musicians who played at the I-House last weekend make up the current configuration of the Silk Road Ensemble, a musical collective with a revolving group of performers that has included over 80 musicians, composers, and artists through the years. Silk Road Chicago is the yearlong, citywide celebration that kicked off in June 2006 with the partnership of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the city’s cultural and tourism bureaus.

Wu Tong, the sheng player, added yet another element to the mix. One of China’s biggest rock stars, Tong joined the Silk Road Ensemble not with his band, but with a group of traditional Chinese instrumentalists known as China Magpie. The first half of the program focused on the Silk Road Ensemble, with China Magpie both flying solo and joining Silk Road in the second half.

The evening opened with “Wandering Winds,” a joint composition by Tong and Silk Road’s Ko Umezaki. True to the piece’s title, Tong drifted into the proscenium playing forlornly on a wooden flute, while Umezaki strolled in from the other side of the stage a few minutes later with a shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown flute. The two musicians circled each other, eyes closed, with Wu Tong pacing to the funereal tempo of his legato melody while Umezaki added high, breathy accents, shaking his instrument as if he were charming an epileptic serpent.

Silk Road’s global scope in terms of the project’s collaborators, instruments, and repertoire made for a completely engrossing performance. The evening featured compositions fused from not only Chinese and Western, but also gypsy, Ethiopian, and Arabic traditions. When Indian tablas crept in halfway through Tong’s version of “Wine Madness,” a traditional Chinese piece, no one batted an eye. Through skillful arrangement, Silk Road and China Magpie found ways to combine the musical conventions of several different cultures to arrive at coalescence instead of clash.

The performance also tapped the universal wonder provoked by things never before seen: Several of the musical instruments were unfamiliar to Western eyes. Part of the intrigue lay in matching up previously known sounds with their makers. China Magpie’s Li Hui, for instance, captivated the audience with her pear-shaped pipa, which produces the distinctive twang in Oriental music generally familiar to Western ears, but not eyes.

Even instruments that seemed recognizable sounded decidedly exotic. The percussionists played a deafeningly shrill Chinese woodblock and a Middle Eastern tambourine on which individual jingles could be manipulated without disturbing the others.

Conversely, Silk Road’s Western string quintet instruments took on an Eastern sound, and traditional Chinese instruments like the three-stringed lute called the sanxian could be made to sing with the woody tone of an acoustic guitar in the expert hands of China Magpie’s Liu Lin.

The average audience member attending the Silk Road Ensemble’s performance was at least 10 years north of college age, owing less to an uninterested student body than to the event’s sparse if not nonexistent advertising. For those who missed them this time, however, Silk Road will be back in Chicago from April 9–21, performing with Yo-Yo Ma and conducting residencies with the Art Institute and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.