Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago Review

by James Manheim

Yo-Yo Ma's experiment in musical multiculturalism known as the Silk Road Ensemble rolls on, here in collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This disc, in its way, represents a blueprint for the future of big-name, big-money classical music; self-released by the orchestra, it is an eclectic piece of work with appeal to classical music's growing Asian constituencies, and it combines traditional repertoire with new things and a look at a past master with a globe-spanning orientation. The latter item is the best news here. Lou Harrison's Pipa Concerto, composed in 1997, was the final major work of the great experimenter in fusion of Asian and Western traditions. It was written for Chinese pipa player Wu Man, herself an adherent of cross-cultural ideals who has worked with the Kronos Quartet and other Western ensembles. The pipa is a Chinese instrument, a pear-shaped lute, that itself was adopted by other Asian cultures, and Harrison by no means restricts himself to Chinese idioms. In seven short movements, the last of which is a medieval French estampie, it constantly reveals new surprises along with a wealth of balances between the quiet solo instrument and the orchestra. The program opens with a pair of works featuring Ma: in Bloch's Swiss-Jewish-American standard Schelomo, he plays the cello, moving to the two-stringed Mongolian morin khuur for Legend of Herlen, by Mongolian composer Byambasuren Sharav. This certainly qualifies as an oddity, but it plays off against the Bloch work nicely. One can understand why Prokofiev's consistently crowd-pleasing Scythian Suite, Op. 20, was chosen as the finale, and the CSO's mighty brasses have lost none of their punch in rendering it under hot young conductor Alan Gilbert. But it tends to overwhelm the more delicate music on the rest of the disc. Perhaps this program loses some of the focus of Ma's earlier Silk Road discs, but, like so much of the cellist's earlier work, it marks out new paths for other musicians. Recommended to all who have been following Ma and his brilliant career.

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