Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 as a vehicle for exploring world music, and placing Western classical music within the wider context of the many cultures that traded goods, services, instruments and melodies over the fabled trade route known as the Silk Road. (The group’s later performances of medieval and Renaissance music from Italy, for example, remind us that Venice was actually the Western end of the Silk Road, and that what would become classical music was deeply affected by Near Eastern music and instruments.) Using his prodigious talents and his equally prodigious reputation, Yo-Yo Ma brought the Silk Road Ensemble to venues great and small, and perhaps the most telling sign of his success is that the Ensemble has continued to perform and record even without his direct involvement in recent years.
Still, fans of the cellist will be glad to hear him as a central figure in this recording, which brought together musicians from the U.S., China, India, Iran, Armenia and the Stans (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.). The Ensemble has a classical commitment to ensemble playing, along with an open, improvisatory quality that reflects many of the traditions of Central Asia. The album’s opener, “Mohini,” is a good example: Written by the Russian-American violist known as Ljova with India’s Sandeep Das and Jay Dit Indra, and conducted by Alan Pierson, it offers both a riot of color and a subtle, almost orchestral palette. One of the highlights is “Mountains Are Far Away,” a work that combines Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor’s kemancheh (a traditional spike fiddle) with its cousins in the Western string quartet. Kalhor’s work has a strong sense of place, of expanse, and a strong narrative feel as well. Kalhor’s other contribution, “Gallop of a Thousand Horses,” does indeed gallop along, and has gained a successful concert life on its own. Other must-hear tracks include percussionist Shane Shanahan’s piece “Night at the Caravanserai,” drawn from traditional Central Asian themes and rhythms, Sandeep Das’s kinetic and relentless “Tarang,” and Zhao Lin’s epic “Battle Remembered,” which almost dares you to try to assign a specific country to each of the instruments — all drawn from different traditions but blending with an organic beauty.