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Driving through the Wake Forest University campus, one couldn't miss the numerous lawn signs advertising the upcoming Silk Road Ensemble concert. The Secrest Artists Series staff knew that this show would have wide appeal across generations, in contrast to traditional classical concerts, and picked Wait Chapel for the venue. Good choice, as this is a large hall that was packed to the ecclesiastical rafters.
Gracing the stage was a large collection of instruments, mostly percussion, with two stacks of speakers and a host of microphones. The seven musicians and their production staff of six had their hands full with all that gear. Each musician has a remarkable pedigree; this ensemble picks from the best they can find. From the biographical notes in the program, only one has been with the ensemble for most of its life; percussionist Joseph Gramley joined in 2000, about two years after the founding by Yo-Yo Ma. Like most of the ensemble, he has appeared with major orchestras, worked with prominent musicians, and issued his own albums. He composed one work on the program, village*, for Galacian bagpipes and two percussionists.
Other musicians were bassist Shawn Conley, violinist and composer Johnny Gandelsman, tabla player and composer Sandeep Das, soprano Nora Fischer, percussionist and composer Haruka Fujii, and pianist and Galician bagpiper Christina Pato. (Note – if you go to a Silk Road Ensemble concert, do not necessarily expect to see these musicians. There are currently 58 artists listed as current performers with the ensemble, all with impressive resumés.)
The heavy reliance on electronics is what makes this kind of performance possible. A lonely violin has little hope of being heard over most of the other instruments, especially the bagpipe. (There was a duet by P.D.Q. Bach for bagpipe and lute; the lute looked good.) The heavy reverb in the hall didn't distract from the music, probably due to the amplification, but hearing what people were saying from the stage through their microphones was for young ears only.
The first work set the mood and the pattern – "Ghanaia" by Matthais Schmitt, for marimba and two percussionists. All the selections on the program were brief; there were 14 works in an hour and a half. The emphasis throughout the concert was on percussion, with three of the seven musicians being percussionists. This first piece is by a German composer who visited Ghana and melded his European tradition with the African influence. It is not clear how closely notated this – or any of the music – was; there were a few music stands on the stage, but they were not the focus of much attention, and clearly most of the music was improvised.
The second work was ostensibly by Henry Purcell: "O Solitude" for voice, double bass, and (occasionally) violin. It was clear that the ensemble was doing whatever it saw fit to whatever the original composition might be. Without guidance from the program, a listener would not know that this was by Purcell or, for that matter, was Baroque music. Soprano Fischer brought a strong pop sensibility to the rendition. While she has sung a good deal in traditional classical music settings such as opera, in this concert there was more Whitney Houston than Maria Callas in evidence.
With fourteen pieces, a list of all would make for a tedious review. In the event, they tended to blur into one another. Regardless of what the notes are, if a bagpipe is playing with a tabla, it's going to sound like a bagpipe with a tabla. And about those Galician bagpipes (the proper name is gaita): Pato had two of them, one black and one white, that sounded the same. The gaita is the traditional instrument of Galicia and northern Portugal. And it is LOUD. While her pipes had at least three drones each, all of them were disabled, so all we could hear was the chanter. Otherwise, playing with the other musicians would have been impractical. Thus, most of the instruments, with their ornate decoration, served only for show. She really let loose and danced about with the pipes, gesticulating wildly, doing all she could with the octave and a half range. At some point, there is such a thing as overacting.
Particularly impressive was Japanese percussionist Fujii, who managed to do things with a simple tambourine that I had no idea was possible. Likewise, bassist Conley pushed the extremes of the instrument in a way that in less capable hands would sound forced at best.
Tabla player Das, who also composed two works on the program, was quite impressive with his impeccable classical technique. Likewise, the violinist Gandelsman was not shy about showing off his virtuosity. But ultimately, the number of notes played per second, however accurately and in pitch, is not the measure of great music making.
After an hour of this performance, an unsettling feeling came to this reviewer. The next to the last piece on the program was "Kaddish," by Maurice Ravel. Now Ravel is one of the most distinctive voices in western classical music and the most successful of all French composers, measured by performances, scores sold, and recordings. But ,as with the Purcell, without the program, you wouldn't know who wrote this piece; it was a Silk Road performance, like it or not.
And that leads to the major cultural issue of the age. Look at a photograph of the skyline of any big city. You can't tell where it is, not even which continent, unless you happen to know one of the buildings. They all look the same. If you go to Burma, which used to be at the other end of the universe, you won't hear Burmese traditional music. All the musicians have converted to western pop. Their indigenous music has been as clear-cut as their forests. Darwin put forward the fundamental mechanism for diversity in species: isolation of gene pools allowed for independent development. For most of our history, musicians travelled and communicated in limited ways, which dominated the course of music history. Now, the world is homogenized, indigenous languages are becoming extinct, and traditional musical styles and heritages are disappearing. The Silk Road Ensemble turns on the blender to try to create something new from world music, but the result is not a distinct voice. It is a soup with too many diverse spices, leading to a predictable taste. By maximizing cultural appropriation, one wonders at the net result. This is a commercially acceptable and successful approach, and the concert program and its performers were greatly appreciated by the large audience, but this cannot be confused with the real richness of the many traditions from which it all has sprung.