Yo-Yo Ma conceived the Silkroad Ensemble in 1998 as an investigation into the musical cultures that “have rubbed shoulders” over the centuries between the Asian nations bordering the Pacific Ocean and the western end of the trade routes to the Middle East. and Europe. On Thursday evening, for the first time since the start of the Covid pandemic, the ensemble returned to Ozawa Hall with a concert that both recalled the past and celebrated the new Silkroad with the first appearance here of new artistic director, the remarkable vocalist and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, whose “Phoenix Rising” celebrated the organization’s long history and fresh start after a near-disaster.
Jeffery Beecher, bass; Sandeep Das, painting; Haruka Fujii, percussion; Rhiannon Giddens, banjo, vocals; Maeve Gilchrist, Celtic harp; Mario Gotoh, viola; Joseph Gramley, percussion; Wu Man, pipa; Karen Ouzounian, cello; Mazz Swift, violin, voice; Francesco Turrisi, accordion, frame drums; Kojiro Umekazi, shakuhachi; Kaoru Watanabe, Japanese flute, percussion; and Reylon Yount, the yangqin figured in a repertoire that one might venture to describe as “extremely varied”.
With this wonderfully varied set, SilkRoad offered lively composition and “traditional” works with ever-changing instrumentation, sometimes just a small group reflecting a particular culture, other times a mix of instruments that probably wouldn’t have appeared. together in a historical period, and sometimes with everyone at full blast. It’s difficult to go through each track as one number often collides with the next without apparent interruption, and since early in the evening Rhiannon Giddens has been announcing changes. It didn’t matter, because the musicality of all the participants ensured a fascinating listening experience.
At Maeva Gilchrist The call evokes (in the words of the program’s essay) “the transience of water, erosion, and ever-moving life”. It uses instruments from several parts of the world: Kamancheh (Persian bowed string instrument), voice, Celtic harp, Taiko drums, strings and soprano saxophone. The composer herself led this world premiere on the Celtic harp, which unfolded as a “peaceful call to arms”, she wrote, with the singsong blend of melodic material from the north of Scotland.
Without appreciable pause, came a traditional song from North Carolina and the southern United States (extending the geography of the historic Silk Road to the Western Hemisphere as well. Rhiannon Giddens adapted it for her latest album with Francesco Turrisi on frame drum, which is how it started here, but morphed into a fuller version with the ensemble.
As the concet progressed, because the variety of instruments and their groupings, textures, melodies and rhythms employed, provided such varied sound and effect that the only possible response was to feel a sense of wonder.
Sandeep Das spoke about his setting of the Bengali poem to music Ekla Cholo Re, by Rabindranath Tagore, which has a refrain, “If no one answers your call, then walk alone.” This expanded number introduced Indian instruments, even more colorful with instruments from elsewhere, and – as Sandeep commented – “Rhiannon’s singing in Bengali”.
The traditional St. James’s Infirmary Blues, in an arrangement by Michael Ward-Bergeman, endured a series of colorful rhythms in varying moods and styles. A traditional New Ritual brought together the percussionists of the Silkroad Ensemble (instruments that developed differently in different continents and only appear together in a program like this) as well as shakuhachi and pipa for a joyful festival work that offered improvisations passing from one player or group to another. One of the rather surprising highlights was when snare drummer Joseph Gramley challenged tabletop player Sandeep Das to a percussion duel. The action moved back and forth, the snare drum sending out a complex rhythmic pattern played by the drumsticks, only for the table to respond with the same rhythms played with the fingers; their respective improvisation grew longer and more elaborate until the result was evidently seen as a tie, at least by the jubilant audience.
Finally, violinist and singer Mazz Swift came forward to tell the audience that it was time for them to sing. She set up a five-note melody in a characteristic rhythm to the words “Keep on going,” then motioned for the audience to repeat, which was done of her own free will. After several back-and-forths with this phrase, she began to sing stanzas, some of which sounded improvised, others pre-set, but all leading to the “Keep on going” response. Stance after stanza he depicted a world filled with turmoil, trouble, and even joy, as the ensemble members joined in their own responses and the audience echoed the chorus.
It seemed that the concert was over, but a surprise came. Rhiannon Giddens spoke about how special it was to return to Ozawa Hall, where the Silkroad Ensemble first appeared with its founder, Yo-Yo Ma, in 1988. She thanked the ensemble players, her management and Yo-Yo Ma himself for helping her become the new artistic director. At that point, Yo-Yo came in with his cello and began a whole new improvisation extending, once again, to the full and large ensemble, celebrating, it seems, the universal envy of human beings to make music.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and speaker on music. He earned his BA from Pomona College and his Ph.D. from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.