At one point when addressing the crowd at a packed Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, Yo-Yo Ma, standing with members of his Silk Road Ensemble, drew cheers with a simple but emphatic statement: “We made it here.” He was referring, it seemed, to the sheer feat of arriving in Boston from numerous international locales during the brutal local winter. But one could be forgiven for reading more into a passing comment.
Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 to explore various types of music born of cultural cross-pollination, its name inspired by the ancient trading route that linked Asia to the Middle East. To put it mildly, a lot has happened in the world since 2000, and the globalist idealism present at the group’s founding feels these days like a product of an earlier cultural moment. Yet the Silk Road’s post-9/11 relevance, the importance of its artistic and educational mission, becomes more clear by the year. The cultural dialogue represented by its work may be seen, in its own way, as a forceful rejoinder to the events of the daily news.
And happily, 15 years in, the group’s creativity and restless curiosity appear undimmed, at least as judged by Wednesday’s performance of its newest touring program. Many works bore the fruit of improbable cultural collisions — Mahler and Kabuki theater, for instance, or Venezuelan joropo and Galician bagpipes — but what’s notable is also the way the music never dissolves into a kind of Esperanto goulash. The members of this polyglot band are too steeped in their own traditions to let that happen.
Kojiro Umezaki’s “Side In Side Out” swept all 17 players into music of, by turns, hypnotic rhythmic grooves, ritual stillness, and sheer exuberance. Giovanni Sollima’s “Taranta Project” was a wild ride, with interludes of Joseph Gramley’s virtuosic body percussion, Ma’s cello in growling scordatura tuning, and freewheeling exchanges with three-fourths of the Brooklyn Rider quartet (whose members all play in Silk Road).
Edward Perez’s “The Latina 6/8 Suite” brought Spanish, Italian, and Latin American traditions into festive dialogue with help from Cristina Pato’s eloquent gaita. Zhao Lin’s sinuous “Paramita” had Ma and the Chinese sheng player Wu Tong in the spotlight. In “Jugalbandi,” Sandeep Das (tabla) and Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh) offered a rhythmically complex yet meticulous improvisation, joined by fellow band members. And Kinan Azmeh’s “Wedding” reflected on the joy of nuptials in an imagined Syrian village (and a cosmopolitan one at that, given the makeup of this all-star wedding band). The Damascus-born Azmeh, a clarinetist, dedicated the tune to those couples who had managed to find love in Syria during the last four years of war. The music’s keening lines, and the audible commitment of all on stage, seemed to underscore the point.