The Slick Road Project

Photo by J. Henry Fair

IF YO-YO MA WERE TO RE-DRAW the map of this planet, its land mass would consist of a large blob with no boundary lines. He’s a supremely gifted musician of extraordinarily broad passions, this smiling, Paris-born, Harvard-educated wizard cellist, nurtured on Bach and Beethoven. He can play their music as well as anyone else on the planet — as he has demonstrated in concerts and recitals here more than once. He has also performed sanitized hillbilly waltzes here, in cahoots with fellow Appalachians-for-a-day like Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor. He’s been here with a tango band to play music by Astor Piazzolla, and that was mucho snazzy. Two weeks ago he came to UCLA’s Royce Hall with an omnium gatherum of performers from points north, east, south and west, and with music of similar provenance. He calls this latest cultural dabble “The Silk Road Project,” with players in old and new repertory culled from points along that old trade route, which first brought European and Asian cultures and merchandise to within handshaking proximity. Whatever else his efforts may achieve, they have turned the old camel trail into a sleek multilane highway with Big Mac drive-ins every few miles and TV-equipped rest stops in between.

It’s possible to wish, as I surely do, that Yo-Yo Ma would turn up here more often to play Bach’s Cello Suites and the like; I can forgive him — just barely — for the sexy videos he allowed to be made around his Bach performances. I also have to note with some awe that of all the media stars vaguely identifiable as “classical” musicians these days, Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most entitled. You couldn’t get near Royce Hall that night; what other cellist can you name who can sell out a large hall as Yo-Yo inevitably does? (Answer: none.) The “Silk Road” program, though exasperating as a hasty sampling of too little of too much, did come up with some terrific performances. Somebody should take hold of the “Mongolian long-song singer” named Khongorzul Ganbaatar and cast her as the Turandot of everybody’s dreams.

Okay, so there was Ms. Ganbaatar in one short “long song” plus an even shorter encore. There was some fabulous tabla playing by India’s Sandeep Das, in a composition of his own, and an extraordinary performance by Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor in his brand-new piece that set his native kemancheh (“spike fiddle”) against a Western string ensemble. The well-known pipa player Wu Man, for whom Lou Harrison and Tan Dun have composed major works, was allotted one dazzling showoff piece but nothing to show her marvelous command of soft and haunting sonorities. Yo-Yo and pianist Joel Fan played the Cello Sonata by Claude Debussy, who was the first European to fall in love with — and, therefore, to appropriate into his own music — the tinkles and the harmonies from this other world. As the final encore, the whole aggregation of Mongolian, Iranian, Indian, Chinese and East Coast freelance performers joined their dissimilar talents in a sad and mysterious Italian folk tune, something that Marco Polo — the godfather of intercontinental travel –might have heard under his window back home in Venice.

Still, the whole affair was a curiously unsatisfying — if you’ll pardon the transculturation — smorgasbord of tidy but blandly spiced dishes, quickly served and quickly whisked away. Somewhere along that long and slicked-down highway I wanted to linger, to sample some of its scenery at greater length. The program was long enough — 90 minutes as noted in the printed program, more like 130 in actuality — but I left with the unshakable sense of having been shortchanged.

SONY CLASSICS HAS FINALLY released Tan Dun’s Water Passion After St. Matthew, the last of the four settings of biblical Passion texts commissioned by the International Bach Academy, performed and recorded live at Stuttgart in the summer of 2000. (The other three, by Golijov, Gubaidulina and Rihm, are available on Hänssler-Classic.) Setting Tan’s work, with its sense of otherworldly quiet and mystery, against the exuberance and fervor of Golijov’s St. Mark Passion makes for a fascinating contrast: two ardent, immensely talented musical minds envisioning a similar compositional assignment from, so it seems, the opposite ends of a telescope.

You can also draw interesting parallels between Tan’s work and the multicultural impulses behind Yo-Yo Ma’s “Silk Road Project.” Both are bridge-building efforts — Tan’s, between his own Chinese heritage and the Western interaction of faith and music; Yo-Yo’s, between the broad panorama of Asia’s musical aesthetics and the ears and expectations of a Western audience. Similar sounds are employed; Tan’s score also calls for the spike fiddle and ceramic flute that made some appealing racket at Royce Hall. Tan, however, builds his own “bridge” by subjecting his acoustic instruments to electronic processing.

Water Passion calls for relatively few
performers: a small chorus whose members also play Tibetan finger bells, two solo singers, solo strings and keyboard, and, as you might guess from Tan’s previous works, a gathering of percussion instruments including stones of various sizes and pitches, “water drums” (wooden salad bowls floating upside down in a water basin), a small soda bottle (for bubbling sounds), and water gongs partially immersed (an old John Cage/Lou Harrison trick). All this paraphernalia becomes a hypnotic counterpart to the words. “A sound is heard in water,” sings the chorus at the Last Supper (in Tan’s own textual embellishment of Matthew’s words). “The tears are crying for truth.”

I have had my problems with some of Tan’s music in the past. His big symphonies celebrating the millennium and the annexation of Hong Kong seem as much motivated by the spirit of the Hollywood epic as by musical matters. His Crouching Tiger film score (with the cello of Yo-Yo Ma as a voice in the wilderness of Ang Lee’s magic forest) and its later jiggering into concert material strike me as too clever by half. This Water Passion, however, and the 1999 Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra — commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and recorded on that orchestra’s own label — stand for the work of a composer newly baptized; I find them both greatly appealing.

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