Cellist Yo Yo Ma’s musical adventures along the Silk Road continue with perhaps his biggest project yet: an album with his Silk Road Ensemble, made huge by the addition of a little band called The Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since beginning this extraordinarily productive series of concerts, recordings and educational programs in 2000, Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project have traced the lineage of the Western classical tradition back through the trade routes that brought people, instruments, and techniques from Central Asia into Europe, usually through Venice, during the so-called Age of Exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries. This has meant putting the violin, cello, flute, and other orchestral instruments in close contact with their musical cousins — fiddles from Iran, lutes from Uzbekistan, zithers from China. The addition of a full-on Western orchestra, especially one with the powerful collective voice of the Chicago Symphony, could easily have overwhelmed the chemistry that has developed within the Silk Road Ensemble. Happily, that has not been the case. The orchestrations here are usually restrained but telling, rising to a grand climax only on the rare occasions where the music specifically calls for it. And Osvaldo Golijov definitely calls for it in his piece “Night of the Flying Horses,” which ends with a heaven-storming gallop that is definitely a high point on the album.
The famous Chinese piece “Ambush From Ten Sides” is one of the most popular works in the repertoire of the pipa, the Chinese lute; but here, it is augmented by sheng (a handheld mouth organ), guitar, cello, and orchestra. The original is a marvel of musical economy — a single, ancient instrument is somehow able to graphically depict a famous battle from Chinese history right down to the flight of the arrows and the retreating hooves of the horses. But sometimes you don’t want to economize; the piece here becomes something very close to a film score, where you don’t really need to see the film.
The album starts well, too, with the “Arabian Waltz” by the Lebanese-born, German-based oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. The grand sweep of the orchestra and the exotic tinge of Abou-Khalil’s Near Eastern and flamenco-steeped melody offer a winning combination of familiar sonic territory with unexpected tonal and instrumental colors. Another high point is “The Silent City,” a collaboration between Ljova (real name Lev Zhurbin), the Russian-American violist and composer, and Kayhan Kalhor, generally considered to be Iran’s premiere player of the kemanche, the traditional fiddle. It is one of a series of works these two have done, separately and together, with the string section of the Silk Road Ensemble, which has spun off to record its own musical journeys under the name Brooklyn Rider. And so Yo Yo Ma’s globetrotting Eurasian musical project ends up having strong ties to the New World as well.