Silkroad Ensemble
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Conversations with spice

Perth Festival review: Silkroad Ensemble ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, March 3 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Originally founded by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silkroad Ensemble is a US based organisation devoted to bringing together highly trained classical musicians with various national and ethnic musicians to perform modern fusion works. The line-up has changed over the years, and today the route of the ancient silk road which led through Persia and the Caucuses to skirt India and arrive at China serves more as a metaphor than a reliable guide of the ensemble’s musical foci. The instrumentation for the Perth Festival performance included Spanish-Galician bagpipes, classical violin, grand piano, double-bass, somewhat Hungarian/klezmer inflected cello, Indian tabla, Chinese sheng (a polyphonic, harmonica-like instrument) and mixed percussion played by Euro-American masters (though instruments from the Caribbean and Iran were included).

Many of the compositions had a rhythmic drive and swing which made them feel like updated versions of the 1936 ‘exotica’ jazz standard Caravan, but this is appropriate given the artists are explicit about offering novel blends of international approaches, rather than presenting ‘authentic’ folk performance (whatever that might be). A bit of swing provides just the right spice and loosening agent to bring these materials together.

Despite the classical base of the ensemble, the performance therefore tended towards a mixed jazz ambience, which is both something of an advantage and a weakness. There is always something remarkable about classically trained artists playing jazz beats and swinging rhythms, a kind of precision and sharpness of attack which jazz performers do not always choose to embody (jazz is, after all, inherently looser). There is however already an extremely impressive history of international jazz fusion and ‘World music’ from the twentieth century, and while the Silkroad performers were pretty fabulous, they do not quite hit the ecstatic heights of the one-off improvised groups with sitar and tabla players convened by Miles Davis or John McLaughlin, nor that of the extraordinary performances captured on the wonderful and voluminous Éthiopiques recordings.

Silkroad’s performance was nevertheless very fine on its own terms, especially when the artists got more into the swing of things and the initially poorly balanced and rather distorted sound system was smoothed out. By and large the performers succeeded in spite of, not because of, the Perth Concert Hall. A more intimate, jazz-like location would have enabled them to shine even more.

The program was quite diverse, including a pair of absolutely outstanding solo vocal pieces composed by 20th century Hungarian avant-gardist Györgi Ligeti. Singing without amplification, soloist Nora Fischer was accompanied on piano by Cristina Pato. The pair captured the slightly fractured rhythms and halting but lilting time signatures and vocal phrasing beautifully.

A pleasant surprise was the closing suite by avant-garde composer John Zorn, whose exploration of radical Yiddish music underpins his Tzaddik label. Zorn’s compositions allude to the principal Archangels of Jewish lore. The pieces had a wonderful, bouncy lilt, but also unexpected interruptions, pauses and impressively bassy underpinnings. These were interesting but still fun pieces which extended on klezmer motifs and provided ample opportunities for different members of the ensemble to come forward, and then self-consciously play off each other.

Also notable was the piece composed by the ensemble’s tabla player Sandeep Das, which highlighted the rapid backwards and forwards musical exchanges between Das and the other two percussionists, including Shane Shanahan on the giant Iranian tambourine known as the daf. The string performers also got involved as the musical cross conversations developed.

Despite the initial teething problems with the sound (at least from where I sat), the Silkroad Ensemble offered an impressively celebratory and highly accomplished performance which had rather more of a jazzy feel than might have been expected. The ensemble is dedicated to using human differences productively, as a way of generating musical and affective links and new conversations. Our politicians and immigration officials could do worse than follow its lead.

Pictured top: the musicians from Silkroad Ensemble. Photo Max Whittaker.

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