Road Scholar

World-music champion: Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall.Photo: Steve J. Sherman

You’ve got to love Yo-Yo Ma, but sometimes I wonder. That he is a superior instrumentalist, a thoughtful musician, a questing spirit, and a great charmer, no one doubts. All that has helped make him one of the few classical-music superstars whose options seem virtually unlimited, an important asset for a restless virtuoso cellist understandably reluctant to spend the rest of his life playing the Elgar concerto, Bach suites, and other staples of a comparatively small, restricted repertory. In part to escape from that trap, Ma has lately plunged into all sorts of fanciful projects that only uncritical fans would call total triumphs. Even his formidable talents haven’t been enough to sustain the many forays into bluegrass, tango, mixed-media videos, movie music, and old music – crossover adventures that much of the time only succeeded in sounding trivial and unconvincing.

Now the irrepressible cellist has ventured out on the longest limb yet, embracing musical multiculturalism on an unprecedented scale. As the guiding spirit and leading attraction of the Silk Road Project, a heavily promoted enterprise funded by deep pockets (the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Ford Motor Company, Siemens, and Sony Classical, among others), Ma has set out to show us how music can be used as a means of understanding between the most diverse cultures. Who could possibly criticize such a noble goal? As one Silk Road bystander commented recently, it’s just too big to fail.

The project’s title refers to trade routes that joined the East to the West from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 1500, lines of communication that crisscrossed Eurasia and extended from China to Southeast Asia, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa – the Internet of antiquity, says Ma, who can also coin a phrase. This vast area embraces dozens of countries, ethnicities, and cultures, most of them still far off the radar screen of today’s average Westerner. Exploring their music, that fabled international language presumably spoken by all, is one sure way to establish the connections, foster the friendships, and inspire the mutual trust that we need to get along.

The next step was to assemble some 40 international musicians and set up a plan that would bring the unfamiliar music of Afghans, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, Turkmens, and other Silk Road cultures to audiences everywhere. These musicians would also play, along with traditional native music, newly commissioned concert works and older scores in which East meets West, and in general create bridges to a part of the globe that means far more to us now than when the Silk Road Project first got under way in 1998. Since then, Ma and his colleagues have set off down a road of their own, and early last month they arrived in Carnegie Hall to give us a taste of what they had come up with.

Well, it never all came together, for me at least, and after one concert and listening to a new Sony CD containing highlights of the world tour, I had had enough. Despite the one-world, joyous jamboree atmosphere, there was also an artificiality, an aura of showbiz about the event that seemed to stifle anything truly authentic. Perhaps the new works had something to do with creating that impression, and Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur, by the Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor, was typical. Sounding as kitschy as its title suggests, the music conjures up a Technicolor Persian harem complete with Maureen O’Hara as the resident belly dancer. Inspired concert works that assimilate ethnic musical elements can and have been written by many composers, from Bartók to Bernstein – a few classics are even on Ma’s programs – but the process that produced them was always natural and organic, the result of an urgent creative need and not a hothouse commission solely designed to prove a point.

One valuable artifact has come out of the project, however: a two-CD set from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, The Silk Road, a Musical Caravan. These discs contain the real thing: 47 tracks, most of them recorded in the field between 1966 and 2001, that document the traditional music of Silk Road countries as performed by their musicians, many of them astonishing virtuosos. The compilers, ethnomusicologists Ted Levin and Jean During, correctly liken their anthology to something Marco Polo might have assembled if he had owned a tape recorder. Here indeed is a musical caravan of endless richness, color, and variety, one that includes court music, love songs, dance music, religious invocations, pastoral musings, and epic tales featuring a fascinating array of native instruments and vocal styles. The Silk Road’s multicultural jam sessions positively pale next to such vibrantly authentic music-making.

While the Silk Road Project was grandly holding forth at Carnegie Hall, the Estate Project for Artists With AIDS made a more modest debut with a concert at the Guggenheim Museum. The goal of this initiative, launched in 1991, is to create programs addressing the legacies of artists with aids in the fields of visual art, film, music, theater, video, dance, and literature. The music-archive program – led by Joseph Dalton, former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. – began last year, and what better way to call attention to the project’s work than a concert devoted to some of the more than 100 composers who have died of aids or who now live with HIV?

Great tragedies do not necessarily guarantee the production of searing masterpieces, and the music offered at the Guggenheim – mostly songs and piano pieces by Gerald Busby, Yvar Mikhashoff, Martin Hennessy, Robert Chesley, and Fred Hersch – was more of a sweetly consoling nature than of Beethovenian confrontation or raging bitterness. Nothing wrong with that. Perhaps the gentle strains on this occasion conveyed a sense of loss more poignantly than any large-scale, agenda-laden symphony could have. In any case, it was wise to end the concert with Hersch playing his own jazz-inflected, improvisational piano pieces – irresistible music that seems as if it were being composed right before your ears. There is plenty more where that came from, and the Estate Project plans a whole series of concerts and recordings to address a growing musical literature too important to be neglected.

Yo-Yo Ma
Silk Road Project at Carnegie Hall.
Estate Project for Artists With AIDS
Concert at the Guggenheim Museum.

Road Scholar