Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble helps Carolina Performing Arts mark 100 years of The Rite
On the pleasant southern campus of the University of North Carolina, Carolina Performing Arts has launched 'Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring at 100'. It's an academic year-long festival of concerts, seminars and parties culminating with a high-level conference in Moscow next May.
Things have calmed down since 1913 when the first night Paris audience rioted at Stravinsky's angry music, Nijinsky's rude choreography and Roerich's primitive designs. When the 13 members of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma played the world premiere of Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky's Sacred Signs last Sunday night, there was no riot. Unlike their Parisian predecessors, the Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina audience recognised and responded to the beauty and excitement of the new. So, no riot.
The evening's headliner, Sacred Signs, is a 60-minute musical road trip along a fantasy Silk Road featuring the Silk Roaders themselves in a variety of configurations. Inspired by the folk tunes Stravinsky used in The Rite and the writings of Nicholas Roerich, who designed the costumes and sets for the original production, Yanov-Yanovsky shows the lapidary's skill of a music engraver, achieving an amazing variety of effects and actual music with relatively few notes.
Each of the 10 movements features one or more of the musicians, and the listening experience in the sold-out hall increasingly mirrored that of the musicians themselves as they communicated with each other on a deep and spiritually sensitive level. Centre stage was held by narrative waves of absorbing musical events, including faint echoes of Russian music, Ma's gorgeous Strad rising out of the ensemble, a meditative gong you'd die for in your community yoga centre, sensual wailing bagpipes, Mr Spock's favourite instrument (the sheng), the gorgeous bowed kamancheh, all and more in a latticework of sounds and forms constructed in real time by the musicians on stage. The poignant end was accompanied by American Indian singing on tape.
Like The Rite, the collaborative factor between the music, the visual and the dance was deep and intense, although with a different balance of elements and the introduction of new technology. The homeland of Yanov-Yanovsky, who was 'unavoidably stuck in Tashkent', could have provided the material for Hillary Leben's visual projections. While slight, her mixing flowing perspectives of distant fantasies framed by the blocky original 1913 look, including costumes, evoked enough to momentarily distract attention without interrupting too seriously the music's flow.
The first half of the concert began with a Suite from John Zorn's Book of Angels (2004), which used the ensemble's full complement with abandon and a vivid imagination. Every instrument had its say, including a wild Galician bagpiper in a floor-length black dress; exquisite pipa plucking by Wu Man; lots of Kojiro Umezaki's haunting shakuhachi. The full-house audience, bright, brilliant and bold, roared after a very hot tabla solo. In the riot of sounds I caught a snatch of Moon River.
Colin Jacobsen's Atashgah (2010) felt very much like a 21st century Schubert quintet, its exquisite mix of acoustically compatible instruments (string quartet, kamancheh, double bass and drums) cruising engagingly and, possibly, through its own road trip of musical events. Vijay Iyer's Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, which ended the first half, brought back the Ensemble's large complement and much was again heard of wailing bagpipes and transcendent drumming, with cellist Mike Block grabbing ears in the hall when he played a jazzy equivalent of Eastern rhapsodising.
Classical music journalist Laurence Vittes is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Strings, Audiophile Audition and Gramophone.