A musician of Yo Yo Ma’s international stature and accomplishment could easily maintain a brilliant career safely within the classical bailiwick, but the ever-youthful cellist (nudging 60) thrives on his roles as seeker, learner, and—like Louis Armstrong—world ambassador. Ma’s musical embrace encompasses musicians from most continents. (‘Yo’ means ‘friendship’ in Chinese, a street-greet in America; doubled, it means intense friendship, a bouncing hand-toy, a musician with his door open to the world.) Ma may saw and pluck merry hoe-downs with violinist Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer, fusing Appalachian and Celtic traditions; engage in duos with pianist Kathryn Stott on Belle Epoque classics by Fauré or Franck; prance through Astor Piazzolla tangos and Venezuelan merengue with Cuban clarinetist Paquito d’Rivera; play in videos elegantly pairing Bach’s Cello Suites with Mark Morris’ dancers.
Through Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, an ambitious, collegial world-hugging enterprise he founded in 1998, he opens an east-facing door on music from Istanbul to Samarkand to Seoul: his cello may join wistful duos with erhu and pipa, or face down ominous encounters with war drums on Tan Dun’s sound track for Ang Lee’s film hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As artistic director he genially oversees a flexible confederation of professional musicians – some of whom have also earned world-class reputations on their instruments, such as Sandeep Das and Wu Man —who relish playing a wide repertoire that embraces many traditions.
Silkroad’s latest manifestation at Sanders Theater Friday night gathered a looser group than on recordings [new is A Playlist Without Borders on Columbia Masterworks] that present commissioned works by composers steeped in international cultures, like John Zorn, Wu Man, Vijay Iyer, David Bruce. At Sanders, they invited onstage several undergraduates in skilled cameo roles on strings and percussion to participate in a world-folk jam.
Drummer Shane Shanahan, given a Malian folksong about indigo dyeing by Harvard ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson, spun from it a string ostinato that morphed into a loping camel-trot for drums and tabla (Indian tuned “bongos”) under a whining pentatonic tune for strings; Kinan Azmeh’s clarinet was soon joined by Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo recorder) and the bluesy balafon (Malian marimba) of Balla Kouyate, whose family has played them for 800 years.
The Latina 6/8 Suite, conceived by Cristina Pato playing gaita (Galician bagpipe) and written by Edward Perez, segued lively Italian tarantella with festive Spanish muiñeira in a jolly romp with lightly improvised solos by folks like bassist Shawn Conley and fiddler Johnny Gandlesman.
While most of the 90-minute, no-intermission evening engaged half the twenty musicians present onstage, small-group break-outs offered textural contrasts; folk duos from Syria (clarinet and Mike Block’s slung cello) and Finland (Pato actually reading her piano score as Ma bowed cello animatedly); Woody Guthrie’s “Buffalo Skinners” arranged for strings, cajon (beat box), and Sandeep Das’ tabla by George Meyer; an Irish march for tart strings and Wu Man’s pipa (Chinese lute) strummed vinegary as a banjo; “Yao Dance” a zesty, energetic suite pitting pipa against Reylon Yount’s yangqin (Chinese zither); a serene, swan-like West Bengali “Boat Song” for tabla and shakuhachi.
After a Wu Man melody prompted choruses of frenzied jamming for violins, gaita, and two drummers, the ensemble closed with a sensuous, lilting Syrian wedding song, modulating gracefully over 64 bars and provoking Pato to dance around transported clarinettist Azmeh. An encore brought out Danny Mekonnen, whose tenor saxophone brightened a quietly impassioned Ethiopian tune.
The musicians, pros and amateurs alike, joined in a spirit of unanimity and collegiality — “gracious and generous, flexible and collaborative” -– to play in one loose-limbed, joyous jam session. It’s an evening slated to endure, as some performances will appear on a 2016 SilkRoad album.
As Ma told me in conversation at the dear departed Upstairs on the Square: “On all my projects, I’m trying to do the same thing: find out where the music comes from. What I learned from Bach is that there’s infinite variety to life, and every culture finds its way to express that variety. I’m looking for that, whether I’m playing Beethoven, Persian music, or Jobim. We’re tracking the evolution of the [music]: where it came from and where it’s going.”