When worlds collide: Silk Road and the Philharmonic stay in two separate spheres

Fri Feb 20, 2015 at 12:43 pm
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble performed with ALan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble performed with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

The Silk Road Ensemble, cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s amalgamation of a world and new music group, is full of good musicians and interesting ideas. Silk Road is making their New York Philharmonic debut in a three-concert series that opened Thursday night, and the program was as odd and ungainly as is the idea that the ensemble was debuting “with” the Philharmonic. Judging from the concert at Avery Fisher Hall, they are playing the wrong music with the wrong collaborators in the wrong place.

The first half was set aside for Silk Road, with a bit of augmentation from Philharmonic musicians, and Alan Gilbert on hand to conduct the final piece, selections from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s response to the Rite of Spring; Sacred Signs: Concerto for 13 Musicians. Other than the names and the hall, the music had nothing to do with the Philharmonic (nor did Sacred Signs particularly demand a conductor).

This was Silk Road’s show, from the opening Fanfare for Gaita, Suona, and Brass. Co-composer Cristina Pato (along with Wu Tong) and Hu Jianbing played the gaita and suona, the first a bagpipe instrument and the second a Chinese oboe, while walking ceremonially down the aisles. Philharmonic trombonist Joseph Alessi and trumpeter Matthew Muckey responded from the stage, along with the rest of Silk Road.

The ensemble went on to do their thing, play new music that is composed or arranged out of international elements; Drag the Goat, by David Bruce, at ease, fairly, eclipse, from Kojiro Umezaki, and Oswaldo Goliv’s and Ljova’s arrangement of Turceasca, a scintillating dance tune from Taraf de Haidouks member Sapo Perapaskero.

This was all good music, especially when played by such fine musicians—the phenomenal pipa player Wu Man and kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor stood out as greats among equals—but it had little effect. Avery Fisher is simply too big, the configuration totally wrong for music that is fundamentally social. Even composed by contemporary Western artists, the music is about dancing, drinking, talking, flirting, fighting. The audience should be close to the musicians, even interacting with them. The fundamental point of the traditions Silk Road is adapting is that there is little distinction between performer and audience.

Ma seeks to point out the connections between disparate peoples through Silk Road, which is admirable but, outside of the still cloistered culture of classical music, utterly unremarkable. And inside classical music, Jordi Savall has been doing it much better for far longer.

But Ma is a star, so he’s booked in the big halls, where administrators, audiences and critics marvel over the exoticism of the rhythms, the fact that there are brief bursts of improvisation, like witnesses to an anthropological tableau vivante (the music, strangely, is crammed into the bland conformity of equal temperament). Yet with the musicians on stage, the audience seated quiet and still in their rows, there’s no connection amongst peoples and cultures. The effect is like a whisper lost in the winds. And the size of the hall demands amplification and mixing, which was atrociously done throughout, the sound spongy, murky and one-dimensional, with cheap, gratuitous reverb to tart it up.

Silk Road only appeared “with” the Philharmonic once, playing Golijov’s Rose of the Winds for the night’s finale. This is a herky-jerky quasi concerto grosso—his previous Air to Air with an added final section—for the group with the orchestra, ostensibly organized around the ritualistic aspect of prayers.

While Ma’s goals and execution with his group are admirable and deserve a more social setting, Golijov is a sentimental pasticheur who has somehow enraptured a classical and critical culture that, like condescending tourists, finds it marvelous that people can make sophisticated music with instruments and means of notation that rarely appear in the halls of Juilliard.

Rose of the Wind curates various ethnic flavors—the call of the muezzim, the sound of the shofar—that Golijov makes safe with 4/4 rhythms and standard tuning and harmonies, and electronic sound and effects. Each is dropped promiscuously for something else. He uses signal processing to stay hip. The fragments display his interests without expressing anything interesting about them. With a full, unamplified orchestra, the sound was even worse than the first half.

The one piece that did at least sound decent was Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, which Gilbert and the Philharmonic presented by themselves to start the second half. The energy waxed and waned, and it was a mystery why Strauss’ vainglorious tone poem was even on the program.

The Silk Road Ensemble performs with the New York Philharmonic 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday nyphil.org

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