Yo-Yo Ma, born to Chinese parents in Paris, is cosmopolitan by birthright. He is also cosmopolitan by education. For years now he has used the power of his celebrity to push forward his own frontiers, those of his instrument, the cello, and the art of music that he serves.
One of his most ambitious efforts over the past few years has been the Silk Road Project, an investigation of the traditional music from the countries along the ancient silk trading route between Europe and China, as well as an exploration of what contemporary composers from those nations are up to.
Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble assembled in a sold-out Symphony Hall last night to present a program of new and old music, traditional music in spiffy arrangements, and more recent music composed by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh from Azerbaijan, by Kayha Kahor from Iran, and by Tan Dun, a Chinese composer who is now resident in America. Ma was joined by three whizz-kid players (violinists Jonathan Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen and violist Nicholas Cords) to form a string quartet, augmented by Wu Man, the elegant virtuoso of the plangent Chinese lute, the pipa.
The composed pieces were the longest. "Mugam-Sajahy" by Ali-Zadeh is a mesmerizing attempt to translate the sounds and techniques of Azerbaijani music into the medium of the string quartet, with assistance from Wu Man on percussion. This began with a long cello meditation on two notes that grows into a duet with an offstage viola, then into a dance played onstage, before the cellist is left alone again. Ma proved as eloquent playing two notes as he does in whole concertos, but this piece, and the whole program, was not a show-off opportunity for one star; this was an all-star ensemble. Tan Dun's Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa is a vivid, storytelling piece based on a Chinese ritual for the dead, supported by references to the music of Bach. Wu Man made her instrument breathe, sing, sigh and wail.
The arrangements featured folk songs from Armenia, notated by the Armenian national composer, Vartabed Komitas; gypsy music from France, Romania, and Turkey, some of it arranged for this ensemble by Lev Zhurbin, some of it arranged originally by Boston's own Osvaldo Golijov for the Kronos Quartet, with a pipa part added by Zhurbin. These did perhaps suffer from the Kronosizing, or homogenization, of world music, but there's no denying the ingenuity and skill of the arrangements, the native vitality of the music and the brilliance of the playing.
One of Ma's greatest gifts is to take the public with him wherever he wants to go, and the enthusiasm led to two delightful and fiery encores from the repertoire of the gypsy ensemble Tarif des Haidouks. They brought the house down, and the audience to its feet.
(Yo-Yo Ma; With the Silk Road Ensemble; Presented by the FleetBoston Celebrity Series; At Symphony Hall, last night.)