Yo-Yo Ma travels The Silk Road

Akron Beacon Journal , OH
April 22 2004

Yo-Yo Ma travels The Silk Road

Yo-Yo Ma now trades safety for unusual exotic sounds of Silk Road

By Elaine Guregian

Beacon Journal music writer

As one of classical music’s biggest names, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma could
easily have spent his career playing only the most mainstream of
classical pieces. Audiences would have been happy. But curiosity got
the best of this inquisitive player, who next month will receive the
Harvard Arts Medal from Harvard University, where he graduated in

Ma branched out. He played bluegrass with Mark O’Connor and Edgar
Meyer on Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey. He stepped up to
tango music in Piazzolla: Soul of the Tango.

And in 1998, he began his most ambitious, wide-ranging project so
far: The Silk Road Project, a combination of performances,
commissions of new music and education, all with a global reach. The
concept for the project comes from the idea of looking at the ancient
Silk Road trading route used from the first millennium B.C. to the
middle of the second millennium A.D. The Silk Road stretched from
China and Japan across Central Asia to reach Persia (now Iran),
Turkey, Greece and Italy.

In these a vast number of cultures thrived, with their music
cross-pollinated by the travelers on the trade route. (For a map of
the route and other information on the Silk Road project, go to

Tonight, Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble are coming to E.J. Thomas Hall
under the auspices of Tuesday Musical to perform a program that
includes music from Turkey, China and Armenia. Some of the music is
traditional folk songs or instrumental pieces. Other are newer works,
like Kayhan Kalhor’s Gallop of a Thousand Horses, that build on the
past. In this piece, the Iranian composer took folk songs of his
country as the basis of a new string quartet.

Akron is part of a seven-city U.S. tour by the ensemble, a fluid
group that changes according to the repertoire scheduled for
different concerts. Before the tour began, Yo-Yo Ma spoke by phone
from Cambridge, Mass.

One thing he’s trying to do with this project, he said, is to show
different ways music gets passed on. “Your mother may have sung it
to you (or) you heard pieces and transferred (them). Some people
write them down. Some people collect things and then re-invigorate
(the music) in other ways,” Ma said.

One such historian was Vartabed Komitas (1869-1935), an Armenian
singer who collected more than 1,000 Armenian folk songs. The
Armenian people’s numbers were decimated by massacres in the late
19th and early 20th centuries, so it’s especially significant that
Komitas preserved an aspect of this small country’s cultural history.

Besides doing concerts like the one at E.J. Thomas nationally and
internationally, the Silk Road Ensemble has been involved in projects
like a two-week residency last January at the Peabody Essex Museum in
Massachusetts. Here the musicians had a chance to study the
collection with the curators and improvise in the galleries.
Storytellers and craftspeople were present, too, rounding out the

“It was, I would say, one of the highlights of my entire life, being
able to interact with an audience in a very relaxed way, to work with
schoolchildren, at-risk kids, drum circles. It’s sort of like what
Bali is like, in that theater and art and entertainment are all mixed
and everybody participates,” Ma said.

The Essex is a large museum of Asian art and culture. What would Ma
think of doing a project at the Cleveland Museum of Art, whose
collection of Asian art is world-renowned?

The question was hardly out of a reporter’s mouth before Ma responded
appreciatively. “I know the Cleveland Museum, I love that museum. If
the opportunity ever came up, we would love to do that.”

Making plans seems to be as much fun for Ma as carrying them out.
He’s involved in plans with NHK, the Tokyo broadcast giant, which is
doing a documentary on the Silk Road Project. And he’s working hard
to generate excitement for another round of Silk Road commissions as
well as another recording. Commissioning new pieces that extend
centuries-old traditions is part of renewal, Ma said.

“And it’s fun to present it in a setting where it’s not like, this
is a new music concert. It all works together.”

Doing more commissioning and recording another Silk Road CD would
call for major financial backing, but it’s not out of the realm of
possibility for an organization that boasts as its supporters Ford
Motor Co., Siemens and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. “We’re
pushing for it!” Ma said enthusiastically. And as the saying goes,
when he speaks, people listen.

Elaine Guregian is the Beacon Journal’s classical music critic. She
can be reached by phone at 330-996-3574 or e-mail at
[email protected]