Review: The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma at Wolf Trap

A high school teacher of mine used to say that there are two universal languages in the world. One is math; the other is music. Simply stated at the time, its message has echoed through my life in wonderful, often surprising ways, and I’m delighted to say the most recent of which was on a humid Thursday evening in Virginia. It was the universal language of music that brought together the incredibly talented musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma, and those of us lucky enough to be in attendance at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center were in for a night of fun, love, and home.

The Silk Road Ensemble performs at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis on April 8, 2011. (Photo by Max Whittaker.
The Silk Road Ensemble performs at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis on April 8, 2011. (Photo by Max Whittaker.

With music that was loud, expressive, improvised, and grooved, the evening launched into a playful celebration from the start as Cristina Pato on the gaita (Galician bagpipes) and Wu Tong on the Suona (Chinese horn) mimicked and challenged each other to quite literally soar higher. Often beginning with one musical instrument at a time before slowly layering on the rest to create a tight groove, the evening’s pieces took us to visit the homes of each of the group’s 17 members.

Note by note the shores of Yangtze River—rhythmic and rippling—in “If You Shall Return…” featuring Sandeep Das on the tabla and the indigo pits of West Africa in the relaxed but persistent beat of “Ichichila” were built on that stage. But perhaps the most powerful of these transportive pieces was to Iran in “Atashgah” with Kayhan Kalhor on the kamancheh. In it you could feel, and see with his head leaned back and eyes closed in concentration, a longing for home driven by an urgent need to share his home, culture, and people with those who surrounded him.

Losing himself in the moment just as easily was Yo-Yo Ma himself as he dueted “Miero vuotti uutta kuuta” from Michio Mamiya’s Five Finnish Folksongs for piano and cello with Pato on piano. One of his signature stances, it almost goes without saying that the way Yo-Yo pours himself into the music is creating, moving into and through his cello, is truly mesmerizing. Through each piece and with Yo-Yo Ma’s incredible skill leading from within, the group proved the intoxicating, infectious, enduring power of music across borders.

While the talent of the musicians in the Silk Road Ensemble is undeniable, it was their heart and earnest will to share these special parts of themselves that are really what make up this group’s soul. From Spain to China to Syria or the crowded A Trains of New York City, the music that these artists created and the love of home that they shared was more intimate than I could have imagined.

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With the grounding help of Haruka Fujii, Joseph Gramley, Shane Shanahan, and Mark Suter on percussion, Nicholas Cords on viola, and Jeffrey Beecher on bass, the members played with the melodies—many of which from their new album, Sing Me Home, released in April of this year—just as much as those around them in a sense of fun and respect so tangible, you couldn’t help but smile.

Nowhere in the show was that play more prevalent however than in the second half when we truly saw their homes blend in to one loud, energized world. In “Cut the Rug” the sounds of Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, flamenco, the Roma people, and American Cajun all poured together as the members took turns improvising, including the cheeky Wu Man on the pipa and Johnny Gandelsman on the violin. And in their closing number, “Wedding,” the mindfully passionate Kinan Azmeh on clarinet took us to the small villages of Syria where, as Azmeh put it while introducing his homeland, we celebrated the people who have managed to fall in love in the last five years. With every member of the ensemble bringing the gift of their instrument this wedding, it was one dance party that tapped your foot and tugged at your heart strings.

Over far sooner than I would have liked, but a memory I will cherish as yet another echo of that high school lesson, the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma was quite truly a once in a lifetime experience. And while my fluency in math has faded more than it should since that day, I agree now more than ever that music in one of those two universal languages that can connect people. Though, if I could after this concert, I would suggest adding a third to that universal list: the power of home.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma played for one night only on August 19, 2015 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and information call (877) 965-3872, or go tom Wolf Trap’s calendar of events.

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Em Skow
Ever since she can remember, Em Skow has been transfixed by the performing arts and sought to submerse herself in them in any way she could. She started singing in choirs in elementary school, added theater productions in middle and high school, picked up an English Creative Writing Bachelor's degree and a photography passion in college, and, now - a good handful of years later - is keeping each as a part of her life here in D.C. By day, she's a Communications Professional. By night, she's a PR and Corporate Communications masters student at Georgetown University; Soprano & Communications Manager of the 18th Street Singers; and Theater Reviewer for the one and only DC Metro Theater Arts. All-in-all, a self-professed theater, choral, arts nerd, and she likes it that way.