By Bill Robinson
For millenia, the Silk Road linked East to West, as well as to points in the middle.
Much more than silk traversed the route from China to Europe. Ideas and culture were carried, along with silk, spices and other prized goods.
Ships, trucks, trains and planes, even wired and wireless media, may have supplanted the old Silk Road, but without an interpreter, cultural exchanges can get lost in the chaos and noise.
Yo-yo Ma, who brought his Silk Road Ensemble to the EKU Center for the Arts on Wednesday night, demonstrated that he is the master of modern cultural exchange.
To those unfamiliar with his fame and accomplishments, you might have mistaken maestro Ma for “just another” member of the ensemble. The group appears organized to highlight the young talent that Ma has discovered and cultivated while introducing unfamiliar music and instruments to new areas of the world.
In that regard, Ma is like composer, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who brought his jazz ensemble to EKU last year.
When you’re already acclaimed as the world’s greatest living cellist as Ma is, you don’t have to worry about self promotion.
The ensemble’s 14 men and one woman proved that Ma is just as good at weaving together disparate instrumentalists and music as he is at playing the cello.
Skeptics may have doubted whether the Silk Road Ensemble’s music would be well-received by a central Kentucky audience, even in a university town. But, when a master like Yo-yo Ma is pulling or stroking the strings, literally as well as figuratively, any listener will relish the music.
That is true whether the music comes from or is inspired by the cultures of China, Japan, India, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Austria, Spain or England. The Silk Road Ensemble could be called a United Nations of music. And it is much more successful at weaving the world together in harmony than its political counterpart.
That was the case Wednesday at the EKU center and a nearly full house couldn’t get enough of the ensemble's music, even if many had never heard such sounds or seen such instruments before.
Ma’s ensemble proves that music, especially when exquisitely performed, can put any listener in touch with a timeless beauty not limited to place or culture.
Even when most of the ensemble left the stage to one or two players, coaxing out light or slow, heavy or rapid rhythms from drums, strings, boards or bagpipes, they struck chords that could evoke response from any human soul. If anyone in the audience thought bagpipes are confined to Scotland, they learned that other cultures have their own variations.
Ma seemed content to let the younger musicians he is mentoring take the spotlight. He face showed little emotion until the audience, which had been enthusiastic throughout the evening, rewarded the performers with a thunderous ovation at the concert’s conclusion. Then he beamed with pride and pleasure.
For their encore, the performers and audience seemed to meld together as those on stage and those standing by their sets clapped along to the music’s rhythm.