Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Yes! A music post. It was a most enjoyable night tonight after attending a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble at Zellerbach Hall, the main performance venue on the UC Berkeley campus. The Silk Road Ensemble was conceived by Yo-Yo Ma that draws together many different players from different cultures that were part of the ancient Silk Road trade route – including the Chinese Pipa, Persian kamancheh, Galician bagpipes called gaita, Japanese shakuhachi and of course Western string instruments – the violin and cello. Such an eclectic mix!

It was an enjoyable concert for many reasons. First of all, just the fact that it was Yo-Yo Ma. One of the most accomplished cellist alive today, you can’t but be excited when his name is mentioned..though I must say that in tonight’s concert he was not the centre of attention. No one was. Out of the 14 performers, each from different and diverse backgrounds just like the instruments they played, all had unique roles to play in the pieces performed. And that’s what made it work. The richness of the combination of these instruments which rarely get written for together – that’s why the pieces performed were all commissioned and written specifically for the group, often times by the performers themselves. A few interesting points brought out in the pre-concert talk – the Persian Kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor explained is the main bowed instrument in Persia today. Originally it had 3 strings but now it has 4, influenced by the violin – which reflects how East and West were constantly influencing each other thanks to the contact brought about by the Silk Route. The Kamancheh has a hollow body made of wood, usually Walnut, and has a long neck with a bridge that falls on stretched animal skin – usually sheep, but sometimes fish skin is used (interesting). The primitive bow is made of wood with the usual horse hair, however it is not tensioned by any mechanism. Instead the tension of the bow is controlled by the right hand (!). The dynamics are also controlled this way – the more tension you give the bow the louder the sound. Also as you play higher register notes, you turn the instrument with your left hand so the bow can reach the strings, but the bow itself doesn’t move. This was the instrument that traveled to China and eventually became the Er Hu. So fascinating…definately well worth the $22.50!

Some more thoughts on the side…Yo-Yo Ma is such a character. He was laid back and funny when introducing some of the players. The bagpipe lady was very memorable also..long green hair and dancing as she played..and I think I have a new appreciation for percussionists. Rhythm can make up a piece alone.

For more info visit the Silk Road’s website : http://www.silkroadproject.org/

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