Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project has clearly come of age. When it was formed eight years ago, it seemed like a very promising idea whose exact trajectory was less clear. It was to be some sort of musical think-tank, performance enterprise, and educational initiative rolled into one. Its guiding purpose would be to forge connections among the cultures linked by the Silk Road, the ancient trading routes that ran from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Many observers were intrigued, but what exactly this project would yield was anyone's guess.
Fast forward eight years to this past Tuesday night at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, and the gains are impressive. The project has drawn together a loose collective of formidable instrumentalists, composers, and other artists. Many of the Silk Road Ensemble's regular members are younger musicians based in America, but their collaborations reach widely. The group has put out three recordings, commissioned more than 20 new works, and held residencies in locations ranging from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Chicago, where it is in the midst of a yearlong citywide festival. The idea that unites all of its wildly eclectic programming has not gotten any easier to define, but at its core seems to be a commitment to artistic cross-fertilization and a worthy belief that globalization need not bring about a vast homogenization of culture or a disappearance of local traditions.
The university community is a natural place for such a project to thrive, or so it seemed from the refreshingly informal program at Sanders, part of the second year in a five-year Silk Road residency at Harvard. Ma co-hosted the evening with professor William Kirby, and seemed happily in his element, strolling the stage with a cordless mike, engaging graciously and often playfully with the audience and with the student musicians of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.
The program began with Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, which had figured prominently in a film on China's Cultural Revolution screened earlier that day. As soloist, the young Israeli violinist and Silk Road Ensemble member Jonathan Gandelsman gave a wonderfully fresh performance, enlivened by his own partly improvised cadenzas. Even when playing from Mozart's printed score, Gandelsman is a delightfully unconventional fiddler. He does not have the big tone and imposing presence of a typical soloist but plays with a balletic lightness of touch and a sense of whimsy and imagination that are far more rare.
Indeed, the Silk Road Project seems to have become, among all its other goals, an incubator for emerging talent that Ma has chosen to nurture. When Ma appeared with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven's Triple Concerto last spring, he notably tapped Gandelsman and Joel Fan , a pianist who has also performed with the Silk Road Ensemble, to join him as soloists.
Tuesday's program also featured the fourth movement of ``Poems From Tang " for string quartet and orchestra by the prominent Chinese-American composer Zhou Long. It's a wild, visceral scherzo inspired by an eighth-century poem about a band of carousing poets. The score is a fascinating mix of thorny avant-garde writing and a delicate sound world designed to evoke more ancient Chinese musical traditions. Ma, Gandelsman, the violist Nicholas Cords , and the violinist Colin Jacobsen were the excellent soloists. The student orchestra had clearly invested much energy to learn this difficult piece, and under the direction of its conductor, James Yannatos, its efforts paid off.
But even with all this absorbing music, the night was almost stolen by a group called China Magpie, led by the vocalist and Chinese mouth organ (sheng) virtuoso Wu Tong . Wu is a bona fide rock star in China, and Ma's Silk Road Project has been a gateway to some of his first exposure in the West. His instrument, the sheng, is an eye-catching assemblage of bamboo pipes that he plays with a potent blend of classical virtuosity and pop-star charisma. The band, mostly based in Beijing, played just two short tunes on Tuesday's program, but Wednesday evening they appeared at Club Passim, where Wu and colleagues (including Xiang Gao , violin; Liu Lin , ruan and acoustic guitar; Li Hui , pipa; and guest percussionists from the Silk Road Ensemble) played a riveting set of original music and arrangements of folk tunes from Tibet, China, and elsewhere.
One particularly magical piece traced the path of a river from its icy origins in the Himalayan peaks of Tibet through China to its triumphant arrival in the Indian Ocean. Most of the arrangements struck a delicate balance between old and new, between a respect for folk materials and a flair for showcasing them with vibrant playing, urgent communication, and a rhythmic energy borrowed from rock. Wu is a mesmerizing performer, and this is a group with things to say. Look out for a first recording sometime next year.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com