Silk Road Ensemble Presents World's Musical Instruments

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As the international musical tour Silk Road Ensemble visits UC Berkeley this week, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fellow musicians demonstrated various instruments at Hertz Hall yesterday afternoon.

The demonstration featured some of the most renowned and accomplished musicians in their fields.

Featuring ancient musical instruments from Iran, India, Mongolia and many other parts of the world, the exotic instruments rarely seen in the western world attracted a large audience.

"Most of the instruments I had never heard about or seen before," said third-year UC Berkeley student Hank Hsieh. "It's amazing how they are played and the sounds they make."

Ma is the artistic director of the Silk Road Project, which was created to "study the ebb and flow of diverse artistic ideas," according to a statement Ma made.

"The Silk Road Project hopes to plant the seeds of new artistic and cultural growth and to celebrate living traditions and musical voices throughout the world," the statement continued.

Ted Levin, an associate professor of music at Dartmouth College, introduced the musicians, describing the event as more of a workshop than a concert.

"Workshop is a wonderful word," Levin said. "Workshop gives you license to wing it."

Levin called The Silk Road Ensemble "a group of like-minded individuals exploring music together."

The event opened with Ganbaatar Khongorzul singing urtiin duu, a popular form of entertainment in Mongolia. Its name literally translates to "long song." Ma played accompaniment on the horse-head fiddle.

The song perfectly reflects the Mongolian environment and illustrates the problems with taking a form of music out of its natural environment, Levin said.

The demonstration also included ensemble performances that mixed traditional music of the cultures along the Silk Road and western classical instruments.

One such melange featured traditional Chinese instruments and Indian drums with Ma on the cello.

"The purpose is not to create fusion, but to create a way for each instrument to meet, to each have its own voice," Levin said.

This combining of western classical instruments, like the violin and cello, with the traditional instruments of countries such as Armenia, China and Iran, attracted many audience members to the performance.

"It was a really wonderful melding of different cultures," said Peennie Warren, who attended the event. "It reflects the Silk Road, and it's a cross cultural experience."

Levin and Ma also interspersed historical information on the instruments between the musical performances.

Kayhan Kalhor, a composer and kemancheh player, talked about the current musical scene in Iran. Since the revolution, he said, the notion of getting back to traditions has resulted in young people becoming more interested in traditional music.

After an Iranian ensemble played, Ma explained the challenges of adjusting his musical style to the different style of Iranian music.

"It's hard to sit cross-legged while playing the cello," Ma joked. "The challenge is understanding the scale."

The finale featured a piece that was composed a week ago while the ensemble was in France.

"It's an example of how a little melodic kernel gets used and embellished on to create a multilingual piece," Levin said.

Ma and the ensemble played later that night at Zellerbach, entertaining a sold-out crowd.

Similar to the lecture, the concert included several examples of traditional Eastern music as well as a piano trio piece that was composed by French composer Maurice Ravel.

After a standing ovation, Ma and several other Ensemble players performed two impromptu pieces closing with Khongorzul, who also was the opening singer of the evening.

The ensemble exited after a second standing ovation.


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