‘No one can beat Yo Yo Ma’

The Republican, MA
Aug 11 2004

‘No one can beat Yo Yo Ma’
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Music writer

LENOX – “It sounds like the musical adventure has already begun,” Yo
Yo Ma said as he led his Silk Road Ensemble onto Tanglewood’s
Koussevitzky Music Shed stage Saturday, greeted by an enthusiastic
roar worthy of a rock star.

Ma’s own adventures with the ensemble began in 2000 at Tanglewood and
Saturday night the Silk Road brought them home, bearing musical
riches from Mongolia, Armenia, Iran and Turkey, and culminating in a
performance by Ma, the Boston Symphony, and composer/conductor Tan
Dun of the latter’s “The Map,” a concerto for cello, video and

Whether he’s playing standard repertoire, new commissions, vernacular
music of the wide world, or some combination thereof, Ma’s radiant
joy and white-hot intensity draw people together and infuse them with
like emotions.

This transfiguring unification under the infinite umbrella of music
was the pivotal activity of Saturday’s concert. Like Marco Polo in
his centuries-old travels along the Silk Road, Ma returned with
wonders to share with a willing and eager throng of fans who trusted
him implicitly. As one young woman behind me said just before the
lights went down, “No one can beat Yo Yo Ma!”

The concert’s first half grew from a state of solemn ritual to a
fever pitch of whirling dance. Ma first appeared carrying a Mongolian
morin khuur, a two-stringed horse-head fiddle (he remarked that he
liked the instrument both for its soulful sound and because in
Chinese his last name means “horse”).

With BSO trombonists Darren Acosta, John Faieta, and Murray Crewe,
percussionists Mark Suter, Joseph Gramley and Shane Shanahan,
Tanglewood Music Center pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, and “long song”
vocalist Khongorzul Ganbaatar (wearing a peaked hat topped with
peacock feathers that must have been 6 feet tall, as it brushed the
stage microphones when she stood to sing), Ma opened with the “Legend
of Herlen,” commissioned by the Silk Road Project from Mongolian
composer Byambasuren Sharav in 2000.

Within the high tinkle of crotales, piano, and keyboard percussion
and the menacing growl of trombones, crash of gongs and roar of
drums, Ma and Ganbaatar wove a keening, warbling song whose words
were immaterial in the face of the somehow holy bond they wove with
their utterance.

The remainder of the first half focussed attention on the core Silk
Road Ensemble, violinists Jonathan Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen (the
latter played a stellar recital for Springfield’s Tuesday Morning
Music Club in 1998), violist Nicholas Cords, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man
(who dazzled the Musicorda audience earlier this summer in a
performance of Chen Yi’s “Ning!”) and Ma, now playing cello.

“Gypsy music” might be the most apt term for the rest of the
repertoire, music of the nomadic Roma gathered from many of the
countries they influenced in their travels along the Silk Road.

Armenian folk songs and dances, both rollicking and melancholy, fiery
dances of the sort that surely influenced Liszt and Brahms in their
arrangements long-beloved by concert pianists, and two frantic races
through a kind of Eastern bluegrass, the Kayhan Kalhor’s “Gallop of A
Thousand Horses,” and Osvaldo Golijov’s arrangement of “Turceasca,”
brought the first half to a close and the audience to its feet.

Finger-picking the pipa (a Chinese lute) at blinding speed with
infinite grace and tapping out hoofbeats on its body, Wu Man was the
performing star of this show.

Tan Dun’s “The Map” blended video footage of his native Hunan
province with Ma’s poignant artistry and the expert, adventurous
spirit of the BSO musicians, who were required to explore extremely
extended techniques.

Cast in 9 movements, the piece traced Tan’s spiritual journey home in
search of a “man (who) talked to the wind,” an elderly practitioner
of “ba gua” stone drumming he had encountered during a 1981 visit who
died before his return in 1999.

The success of the piece lay in the minutes where Tan created the
impression that the orchestra and soloist were actually consumed by
the video footage and the two media became one vehicle of

The “Blowing Leaf” movement birthed trilling orchestral bird-songs
generated by the recording of a Tujia man on the screen who created
an ethereal sound-world by blowing across the edge of a leaf.

Ma’s cello responded to and danced with the melody of a beaming Miao
girl’s courtship “flying song” in the “Feige” movement, the two
utterances linking hemispheres in one of the work’s most magical
moments. “Stone drums” married the stark video images and recorded
sound of clicking rocks with percussive string gestures.

The text of an interview in which he described the genesis of the
work rolled on the video screen as the orchestra gave forth vast,
lumbering, portentous sonorities. It was as if Beethoven had turned
to the audience during a performance of his Ninth Symphony, picked up
a microphone and explained why its finale was so new and special.

A few Tanglewood concert-goers didn’t stick around to see how it all
ended. Those that did witnessed a provocative and at times very
beautiful twist of composition: a step beyond film-scoring and an
admirable and promising attempt at a global, if expensive art form.
An orchestra without the resources of the BSO would be hard-pressed
to present such an involved project.