Yo-Yo Ma conceived the Silkroad Ensemble in 1998 as an investigation of the musical cultures that “rubbed elbows” over the centuries between the Asian nations bordering on the Pacific Ocean and the western end of the trade routes to the Middle East and European. On Thursday night, for the first time since the Covid pandemic began, the ensemble returned to Ozawa Hall with a concert that both recalled the past and a celebrated the new Silkroad with the first appearance here of the new artistic director, the remarkable singer and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, whose “Phoenix Rising” celebrated the extended history of the organization and the new beginning after near disaster.
Jeffery Beecher, bass; Sandeep Das, table; Haruka Fujii, percussion; Rhiannon Giddens, banjo, voice; Maeve Gilchrist, Celtic harp; Mario Gotoh, viola; Joseph Gramley, percussion; Wu Man, pipa; Karen Ouzounian, cello; Mazz Swift, violin, voice; Francesco Turrisi, accordion, frame drums; Kojiro Umekazi, shakuhachi; Kaoru Watanabe, Japanese flute, percussion; and Reylon Yount, yangqin appeared in repertoire one might hazard to call “wildly varied.”
With this marvelously varied ensemble, SilkRoad offered a lively composed and “traditional” works with ever-changing instrumentation, sometimes just a small group reflecting a particular culture, other times a mixture of instruments that would likely not have appeared together in a historical period, and sometimes with everyone going all out. It is difficult to review each piece since one number often ran into the next without apparent break, and since early in the evening Rhiannon Giddens announced changes. It hardly mattered, because the musicianship of all the participants assured us of a fascinating listening experience.
Maeve Gilchrist’s The Call evokes (in the words of the program essay) “the transience of water, erosion, and ever-moving life.” It calls for instruments from several parts of the world: Kamancheh (a Persian bowed string instrument), voices, Celtic harp, Taiko drums, strings, and soprano saxophone. The composer herself led this world premiere on the Celtic harp, growing as a “peaceful call to arms,” she wrote, with the chantlike mingling of melodic material from the north of Scotland.
Without appreciable pause, came a traditional song from North Carolina and the American south (thus extending the geography of the historical silk road the the western hemisphere as well. Rhiannon Giddens adapted it for her latest album with Francesco Turrisi on the frame drum, which is how it began here, but grew into a fuller version with the ensemble.
As the concet went on, because the variety of instruments and their groupings, the textures, melodies, and rhythms employed, provided such a varied sonority and effect that the only possible response was feel a sense of wonder.
Sandeep Das spoke about his setting of the Bengali poem Ekla Cholo Re, by Rabindranath Tagore, which has a refrain, “If no one heeds your call, then walk alone.” This extended number brought in the Indian instruments, further colored with instruments from elsewhere, and—as Sandeep commented—“Rhiannon’s singing in Bengali.”
The traditional St. James Infirmary Blues, in an arrangement by Michael Ward-Bergeman, endured a colorful series of paces in various moods and styles. A traditional New Ritual assembled the percussionists of the Silkroad Ensemble (instruments that developed differently on different continents and only appear together in a program like this) plus shakuhachi and pipa for a joyous festival work that offered improvisations moving from one player or group to another. One of the highlights, coming rather as a surprise, was when the snare-drummer Joseph Gramley challenged the table player Sandeep Das, to a percussion duel. Back and forth the action went, with the snare drum sending out a complex rhythmic pattern played by the drumsticks, only to have the table reply with the same rhythms played with the fingers; their respective improvisation became longer and more floridly elaborate until the result was evidently considered a tie, at least by the cheering audience.
Fiinally violinist and singer Mazz Swift came forward to tell the audience it was time for them to sing. She set up a five-note tune in a characteristic rhythm to the words “Keep on keepin’ on,” then gestured to the audience to repeat, which did willingly. After several times back and forth with that phrase, she began to sing stanzas, some of which seemed improvised, others pre-set, but all leading to the response, “Keep on keepin’ on.” Stanza after stanza, it depicted a world filled with troubles, and issues, and even joys, as the members of the ensemble joined in with their own responses, and the audience echoed the refrain.
It seemed like the concert was over—but a surprise came. Rhiannon Giddens explained how special it had been to return to Ozawa Hall, where the Silkroad Ensemble had appeared for the first time, with its founder, Yo-Yo Ma, in 1988. She thanked the players in the ensemble, its management, and Yo-Yo Ma himself for helping her become the new artistic director. At that point, Yo-Yo entered with his cello and began an entire new improvisation extending, again, to the full, wide-ranging ensemble, celebrating, it seemed, the universal urge of human beings to make music.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.