Eclectic musical evening excels

08.20.10
Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road Ensemble
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Yo-Yo Ma's global group melds past, present perfectly

Imagine a hybrid plant thriving on ancient, mixed roots while producing vibrant, fresh leaves and flowers. That image is the visual equivalent of Thursday evening concert by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

Playing to a packed Pabst Theater, the ensemble of extraordinary musicians gave a thrilling, compelling performance of the music that is its stock in trade - pieces composed in the past decade that are built upon ancient sounds and melodies.

At first glance, the group doesn't make a lot of sense. It's difficult to imagine just what sort of music requires Galician bagpipes, ancient Chinese and Japanese wind instruments, a raft of percussion instruments, and string instruments from the world of classical music.

The music is as eclectic as the collection of instruments on the stage. Cristina Pato's "Caronte" opens with the haunting sound of the Galician pipes, bending pitches in over a drone of low strings. The piece unfolds into something of a high-energy jam session, with Pato on the pipes and Kojiro Umezaki on the shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese flute) trading licks in front of the band.

A piece titled "Wine Madness" found Wu Tong creating an absolutely gorgeous, lyrical sound on a sheng, a Chinese free-reed instrument.

The evening unfolded with Sandeep Das' "Shristi," a delightful, percolating piece for four percussionists playing instruments from different corners of the world, and a gripping arrangement of the Chinese piece "Ambush from Four Sides" and other equally fascinating pieces.

Built on the unexpected, the program included a lengthy, complex percussion riff by Joseph Gramley that found him abandoning instruments, sticks and mallets in favor of foot taps, body slaps and finger snaps. Yang Wei brought the fire of flamenco guitar to the ancient Chinese pipa and Das made the tabla wail.

Ma and the musicians, an ensemble of 15, played with technical discipline, improvisatory freedom and rambunctious musical expression to create an unforgettable evening that wedded past and present with disparate-yet-related cultures into something both global and tremendously fun.

The ensemble answered a standing ovation with two encores.