Seven musicians from the eclectic Silk Road Ensemble, formed by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, traveled to Santa Clara University (SCU) for the New Music Festival Jan. 30 to Feb. 4. Their week of music classes, collaboration, and concerts culminated Feb. 3 in the free public concert “Exploring Home.”
Perhaps the biggest concert surprise for those not familiar with the Silk Road Ensemble was the atypical pairing of instruments in the opening piece. First came a background buzz, as if the sound equipment were malfunctioning. Next came the sound of Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi, a Japanese flute.
Then the buzz got louder, becoming the distinctive drone of a Galician bagpipe as Cristina Pato piped her way onto the stage, joining Umezaki for an energetic east meets west interplay bridging their cultures.
The bagpipe is a traditional instrument not only of Scotland but of Galacia, the area of northwestern Spain where Pato was born. The shakuhachi is an end-blown, bamboo flute.
“And that was only the beginning of the concert, not the end,” said Ensemble violist Nicholas Cords, from the U.S., once the applause finally died down.
The Silk Road Ensemble is a collective of musicians–composers and performers–from all over the world who come together to create innovative music in the hope of promoting cross-cultural understanding. The ensemble was invited to SCU as part of the 2016 – 2017 Frank Sinatra Artists-in-Residence program.
The opening excitement of the almost 90-minute concert never let up as the other Ensemble musicians added their instruments to the musical caravan along the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes linking China in the East to Europe in the West.
Percussionist Haruka Fujii, originally from Japan, played xylophone and a large frame drum to an old recording of poetic words about America by Walt Whitman. Indian tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das led an all-percussion interpretation of the creation of the universe Hindu style.
“I joined the ensemble as a proud Indian musician, proud of my culture and heritage. Meeting the ensemble changed my perspective totally. I lost my identity in a nice way and became aware that nothing I thought was actually only mine; it was a shared heritage. Now I take care of Indian culture and heritage as part of everyone else’s too!” said Das.
A famous Japanese folk story, “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” (“Crane’s Return of a Favor”), was told thru voice, flute, viola, and percussion. Throughout the concert, percussionist Shane Shanahan from New York played everything from a box drum he sat on to a goblet-shaped metal one, and Hawaiian-born Shawn Conley played the bass.
SCU music faculty joined the musical caravan: John Kennedy on drums, pianist Bill Stevens and Welsh-born harpist Father Dorian Llywelyn.
“This is probably the most terrifying night in my life,” said Llywelyn before his debut with the Ensemble, playing the slow movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”
The program concluded with music as imagined around a campfire along the Silk Road and “If We Shall Return,” dedicated to “everyone stuck overseas, trying to return,” which referred to the short U.S. ban on people from certain Muslim countries entering the U.S.
Syrian-born Ensemble clarinetist Kinan Azmeh was among those caught outside the U.S. and temporarily prevented from coming home. The concert encore was an Iraqi folk tune.
“The concert was very eye-opening. I really enjoyed all the different countries coming together,” said San Jose resident Jane Qin, born in China. “Music is a language that makes us connected together.”
The Ensemble returns to SCU for a second week and performs another free concert May 5 in the Louis B. Mayer Theatre. Keep checking online at www.scupresents.org until reservations open up.
“Having the Silk Road Ensemble in residence was an amazing experience for us as faculty and for our students. It is so valuable to be reminded of how moving and beautiful it is when people from incredibly different cultures and traditions are able to come together to share and create art,” said SCU Director of Choral Activities Scot Hanna-Weir.
March 6 is the HBO premier of “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” a documentary about Silk Road musicians released in June 2016. For information about the Silk Road Project, visit www.silkroadproject.org.