Reviews: Classical: Silk Road Ensemble / MA Royal Albert Hall


The Independent (London)
August 19, 2004, Thursday


SOME CONCERTS, you’d think, can’t fail. This one included a superb
female Mongolian singer sporting pink headgear with dark peacock
feathers reaching to about 10 feet high, with a most extraordinary
voice, plus a band including instruments such as the bamboo and bronze
sheng (looks rather like a bagpipe, sounds more like an accordion) and
the beautiful, lute-like pipa, to say nothing of virtuoso players on
violin, cello, tabla and other instruments besides. But, although the
capacity audience’s applause for this Prom was enthusiastic, I
wondered how many of them, like me, left a little disappointed.

The band was the cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and the
concert explored “the relationship between tradition and innovation in
music from the East and West”, inspired by the Silk Road connecting
the Mediterranean to China. Three specially commissioned works, plus
one that seemed to be basically structured improvisation, were
supplemented by arrangements of Armenian and Gypsy music. Encores
widened the net further, even encompassing variations on an English
tune from Elizabethan times.

There were variety and virtuosity aplenty. The Mongolian Byambasuren
Sharav’s Legend of Herlen, featuring that singer, Khongorzul
Ganbaatar, opened proceedings in style; you really believed that her
spicy tone and amazingly long-breathed melody, spiked without warning
by high ululations, could have been heard across the Gobi Desert, from
where this vocal style originated.

By comparison, even Ma’s fruity (and perhaps anachronistically
Western- sounding) vibrato on a two-stringed “horse-head” fiddle, and
the intermittent blasts from three British trombonists augmenting the
ensemble, seemed tame. But we had to wait until the third encore to
hear her again.

Zhao Jiping (who wrote the score to the film Farewell My Concubine)
provided the piece I most enjoyed. Moon Over Guan Mountain offered
rather fragmented yet occasionally melodic music for an ensemble
including the sheng, a marvellous and versatile instrument, at least
as played by Wu Tong.

The Indian tabla player Sandeep Das’s Tarang gave four drummers,
himself included, the chance to add some genuine interplay in
improvisation, accompanied by a string group that then became a
mainstay of this afternoon Prom.

The Armenian and Romany music was very affecting, with the Chinese
pipa making natural-sounding contributions. Wu Man, the pipa player,
is a

fine performer. The Iranian Kayhan Kalhor was persuasive in a solo on
the Persian spiked fiddle, but his ensemble composition, Blue as the
Turquoise Night of Neyshabur, proved too long and lacking in thrust.

Booking: 020-7589 8212; Prom 40 available online
to Sunday