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Ma's musical lab comes to Boston

''I see things differently, I feel things differently, I interact with people differently,'' says Yo-Yo Ma of his years of experience with the Silk Road Project. ''I see things differently, I feel things differently, I interact with people differently,'' says Yo-Yo Ma of his years of experience with the Silk Road Project. (Jennifer Taylor for the New York Times/File 2007)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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Back in 1998, Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project was unveiled as a new effort to explore the musical traditions of the cultures along the ancient silk road trading routes that spanned from the Far East to the Mediterranean Sea. The cellist's enthusiasm for his ambitious enterprise was clear from the start but its exact trajectory was less so.

Fast-forward one decade and the Silk Road has come into its own, as Ma has leveraged his classical celebrity to build a kind of roving musical laboratory without walls. Artists from more than 20 countries have participated, forging often-potent collaborations that don't erase but rather foreground the deep roots of various Central Asian traditions.

Over 60 works have been commissioned, and the project's educational arm has taken off through residencies at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design. In November in Qatar, the group premiered its new multimedia chamber arrangement of "Layla and Majnun," the epic Central Asian opera based on the ancient love story that Ma describes as "the 'Romeo and Juliet' of the Azeri-Persian-Arabic world." It's included on the second of the two Celebrity Series programs that Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble will bring to Symphony Hall on Sunday and Monday as part of a North American concert tour sharing the fruits of the last 10 years.

The Globe caught up with Ma briefly while he was waiting to board a plane at Logan Airport - what he calls his "second home" - and over the background din he reflected on the first decade of the Silk Road and his efforts to articulate a new ideal of global musical citizenship.

Q. How have things changed over time? Has the project evolved as you had imagined it?

A. It's been a huge learning experience - probably not unlike what college is like. You meet a series of different worlds, and then you interact with them. A lot of very deep friendships have formed because the idea of working together meant that we had to build relationships based on trust. That's been an incredibly enriching experience.

One of the broader arcs is that we went from [a more traditional model of] commissioning composers, to thinking about different forms of how music is created - in other words, understanding oral traditions and working in an improvisatory way. The idea is everybody who comes in ends up being able to participate in all of those ways of creating music. We're all supportive of one another so if someone doesn't know written music - if they want to try it - we will help. If someone doesn't improvise - we will help.

Q. What should audiences expect on Sunday and Monday?

A. In these two concerts, we'll see a number of snapshots of what's possible. Some people have written pieces for members of the ensemble - [Cambridge-based composer] Evan Ziporyn wrote for the tabla player Sandeep Das, [Iranian spike-fiddle player] Kayhan Kalhor wrote one movement of the Silk Road suite. We will also have a piece called "Paths of Parables" by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky. He took a number of Sufi tales and storytelling and wrote the most gorgeous music for these most beautiful parables. He's from Tashkent [in Uzbekistan] but he's at Harvard right now as a scholar in residence. I think he's a giant composer. And of course we'll have "Layla and Majnun" with Alim Qasimov, he's one of the great mugham [classical music of the Azeri or Persian tradition] singers in the world. And the set for that piece is designed by a recent graduate of RISD!

Q. Has the work you've done with Silk Road affected other aspects of your creative life?

A. Absolutely. I feel, first of all, more human. I feel like I'm more emotionally connected to the flow of history. If you were to drop me down any place in the world, I think before - 20 years ago - I might have just froze and just thought, "Why are you doing this?" But now I think if you did that I probably would have slightly more tools to make my way being a musician, being a member of a different community, and understanding what their value priorities are, so one could create genuine interactions. The toolbox has expanded. . . .

So I see things differently, I feel things differently, I interact with people differently. Maybe I'm more comfortable in more situations. I'm less afraid. We all have a risk-edge place - where you think, "I don't want to go there" - and I still have many of those, but I had a lot more of them before. By systematically making that risk-edge safer, it allows me to feel that I'm a participant in a bigger world.

Q. It seems that more generally over the last decade the classical music world has been trying to open up the windows a bit and air out the temple, that is, to move beyond old Eurocentric models. Do you see the Silk Road Project explicitly in those terms?

A. For me what I've always hoped for is to be part of a world classical community. There are of course so many different "classical" musics . . . there is Arabic classical music, there is Indian classical music. To me classical simply implies cultural literacy.

The way I now look at Bach is that he was trying to write world classical music - it's just that we don't see it that way anymore. But he was going for the broadest horizons of what he knew. Now those horizons are even broader for us. We're just dealing with the world that we know.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

YO-YO MA And the Silk Road Ensemble perform two programs at Symphony Hall, Sunday

at 3 p.m., and Monday

at 8 p.m. 617-482-6661

or www.celebrityseries.org

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