Silk Road Leads Yo-Yo Ma Back to Harvard

Yo-Yo Ma ’76 evokes a sense of historical grandeur comparable to that of his predecessor Pablo Casals—arguably the first virtuoso cellist in history—as an artist established firmly, and maybe inaccessibly, in the traditional canon. However, Ma returns to his alma mater with innovative and decidely untraditional flair. Last Sunday, Ma performed at Sanders Theatre with the Silk Road Ensemble, the performance division of the Silk Road Project, to kick off their renewed collaboration with Harvard University. Founded in 1988 by Ma, the non-profit arts and educational organization  cultivates musical collaboration that draws from traditional music all over the world, with a particular focus on musical traditions of areas that were once along the Silk Road from East Asia to the Middle East.

True to its mission, the Silk Road Ensemble consists of musicians who tour and collaborate internationally. Each performance or recording usually uses 10 to 25 musicians of the entire ensemble, each of whom is a master of his or her instrument. The variety of instrumentalists is wide: musicians play everything from the pipa, a Chinese lute, to the Galician bagpipe. The group was described by Joseph Gramley, a percussionist with the ensemble, as a “group of us with high musicianship ... and a friendly family.” Wu Man, the group’s pipa player, described the ensemble as a group of musicians who are inspired by the folk musicians who “travel from town, playing music for weddings and funerals.” According to Man,  “music is part of their lives, and music is the spiritual part of our lives.”

Ma first developed the Silk Road Project at Harvard in an effort to connect the world’s neighborhoods together in a multicultural, interdisciplinary musical exchange. According to Laura Freid, the project’s CEO and executive director, a faculty member mentioned to Ma that the concept sounded like what the Silk Road had done, and the Silk Road Project was born. “Just when we were thinking that it would be nice for [the Silk Road Project] to be based in an institution, [Harvard University President Drew G. Faust] was thinking that the arts should have a much more important place in higher education and that art-making was as important as any other part of learning,” Freid continued.

Freid and other members of the ensemble spoke of taking full advantage of this affiliation with Harvard University. “We are very open to collaboration,” said Freid. “Yo-Yo and I met together with the dean of the Business School to talk about cultural entrepreneurship [and how it] gives an audience modern context to an ancient [musical] tradition.” In keeping with these efforts, last July the Silk Road Project moved their offices from Rhode Island to Allston, on Harvard property, so that they could have a closer relationship with the school.

In celebration of their renewed their presence on campus, the Ensemble displayed a beautiful synthesis of musical traditions in their Sanders Theatre performance.  “Night Thoughts,” a pipa solo featuring and written by Wu Man, flowed brilliantly into the percussive sounds of Mark Suter’s “Weavings,” a virtuosic percussion-shaker experiment. Only Rabih Abou-Khalil’s “Norma’s Secret” was perhaps repetitive and unwieldy in composition, though not through any fault of the performers. The ensemble’s exquisite attention to the detail of their selections became clear as the concert continued, with many of these pieces—even though they were technically from different musical traditions—featuring congruous harmonies and rhythms.

In pieces like Kayhan Kalhor’s “Silent City,” a heavily improvisational work featuring kamancheh, a Persian bowed string instrument,  Western strings, and percussion, the similar sounds of the kamancheh and strings blended beautifully; at times the listener could not tell who was playing what. As one of three encores, the ensemble participated in an improvisational rhythmic exercise that drew upon each member’s impressive sense of rhythm. The diverse group of instruments blended when necessary, but were distinctive in themselves—“Muiñeiras from Cancionero Musical de Galicia” or “¡Chayraq!: Rough Guide to a Modern Day Tawantinsuyu” contrasted the ensemble’s instruments most effectively.

Most incredibly, perhaps, was the group’s obvious desire to connect with the audience. In between pieces, Ma and other members would speak to the audience about their instruments, their experiences, and the pieces themselves. As Ma said at the concert, “it has always been my dream to see the Chinese pipa playing next to the oud, its ancestral instrument.” In the synthesis of their experimental nature and traditional sounds, the group has displayed an innovation that does not seek simply to perfect a traditional sound, but also looks outward to the cultural traditions of neighboring lands.


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