Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble gave a large and enthusiastic audience a 2½-hour multicultural hootenanny in Symphony Hall last night. An ensemble of 14 virtuoso musicians from many lands joined the cellist for a program that presented four kinds of music: authentic folk music from countries along the Silk Road; modern arrangements of folk music for mixtures of Eastern and Western instruments; contemporary composed music with deep roots in national and folk cultures; and cheerful crosscultural improvisations.
Although Ma founded the Silk Road Project, it has grown and developed in surprising ways because he has never made it all about himself. For most of the evening, he was an ensemble player, emerging for only one solo, ''Habil-Sayagy," a substantial piece for cello and prepared piano by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. This is an amazing piece to have been composed by a woman in Baku in 1979. The innards of the piano were atmospherically plucked and struck by Joel Fan, while Ma used his instrument in an improvisational recitative-and-aria style based on the sound and traditional repertory of the kamancheh, an instrument from Azberaijan.
Wu Man, virtuoso of the Chinese pipa, made herself completely at home in Romanian gypsy music; in these exciting and smoochy tunes, violinists Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman vied with each other in speed and altitude. Gevorg Dabaghyan proved the expressive master of the Armenian duduk, a small instrument with a large, plaintive sound resembling a combination of clarinet, oboe, and saxophone. Sandeep Das, playing the tabla from India, joined three Western drummers to create waves of rhythm. The astonishing vocalist Alim Qasimov from Azberaijan boasts a tenor so high that high C was a note to play in the midst of volatile cascades of expressive coloratura.
Percussionist Shane Shanahan announced the last encore by saying this is what the party would have sounded like if all the musicians had simultaneously pulled into the same oasis on the Silk Road centuries ago; it was great fun to join them there.